An asset USD 480 would like to acquire, Laura Cano said, is more ESL teachers. With that premise in mind, Pedro Espinoza, left, informs local individuals possibly interested in becoming educators through Project ADVOCATE (Adding Diverse Voices and Opening doors to Change: Advancing Teacher Education), of a new opportunity offered through Seward County Community College/Area Techical School and Kansas State University that focuses on educating ESL teachers. The goal, Espinoza said, was to recruit, prepare, mentor and graduate bilingual elementary and secondary education teachers to serve ESL students. Daily Leader photo/Jessica Crawford
By JESSICA CRAWFORD
• Daily Leader
Being a student in a new district is difficult enough. But imagine being a student in a brand new country – with absolutely no comprehension of the native language. USD No. 480 has several students currently in this very situation. With a new program created by Director of Federal Programs Laura Cano, these students have become a primary focus of the district with the help of Newcomer ESL Program teacher Cindy Divsalar.
Divsalar’s purpose throughout the district is simply to teach the English language to 13 students in six different schools. But the process is anything but simple. However, Divsalar has a special bond with her students, due to the fact she was recently in those very same shoes.
“I am new to Liberal, and I am doing the Newcomer ESL Program so I am going to six schools a day, one hour a day at each school,” Divsalar said. “We are doing extensive oral language with the kids that are new to the county.
“I understand how it is to live in a country and not know the language,” she explained. “I lived in the Ukraine for two years, I was in the Peace Corps. I was lost and it was so scary and frustrating. So, I tell them I know what it is to not know the language.
“Before I came here, I was in El Paso, Texas,” she added. “That is where I was born and raised. I was teaching at the community college there, interpersonal communication and public speaking. I was only there for about four months. Before that I was in Ukraine for 27 months, which was amazing. I think that’s maybe how I got the job. I told (Cano) that I had taught ESL overseas and learned a new language.”
Currently, the students Divsalar services are in five elementary schools and one intermediate school. Eventually, she said, the program will likely reach the middle schools and high school.
“(Cano) kind of wanted to wait since it is a new program,” she said. “She is thinking maybe next year I could do the middle school. I know there are a lot of kids that are not English speakers in the middle school.”
To try to give the students some comfort, Divsalar has not only been there for each of them, but there families as well.
“I know that they are frustrated,” she said. “I am there kind of as their liaison to help them and kind of their cheerleader with the regular classroom teacher. I have already met with all of the parents, I want for them to know that I am there for them.”
It has been said to become truly bilingual, seven years of education are needed in the second language being learned. Divsalar hopes that the young age of the students as well as full immersion into their English surroundings will have them comfortably speaking, writing and learning in English inside of half of that time.
“Their brains are like sponges and I wish I had more than an hour a day,” she said. “I wish I had all morning or all afternoon. But, in reality, I can’t do that, if I want to do all six schools. I have seen some progress, it is a slow process but there is progress. I think that the other ESL teachers that are pulling them out and pushing them in the classrooms are also working with them. So, they are getting twice the time which is awesome. Their classroom teachers are telling me they are saying, ‘Good morning,’ ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Until tomorrow.’
“It is full immersion,” she continued. “When I lived in Ukraine, I lived with a host family that knew no English, so you better believe I was picking up that language faster. So, I think with the full immersion, I am hoping it will take half that time. There are state tests and they will have to pass to move to the next grade. So, I really don’t want these kids to fall through the cracks.”
Although teachers and paras alike are extremely helpful, Divsalar and Cano said what they refer to as “the buddy system” is helping these particular students immensely.
“I think that the majority of the students at USD 480 are bilingual so they understand those kids and can translate,” Divsalar said.
“They help each other,” Cano added. “A lot of them remember being in those shoes.”
As helpful as everyone is, however, it is still very difficult for a student to quickly learn a new language. Divsalar said English is full of rules that simply make very little sense to those new to the language.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “They say, ‘Why do you say the alarm goes off when it is on?’ We were learning food and talking about English muffins. They asked if they were from England. I said, ‘No, they are just called that.’ When the teacher speaks quickly, of course, they don’t get any of it. If I speak to them really slow in just basic words, on a very low level, then they can get it. But they are learning that there are a lot of rules to the English language. For example, the silent ‘e’ is killing them. They always want to pronounce it.
“Spanish, you read it the way it is written,” she continued. “English is not like that. I think it is a hurdle, it is a little bump in the road. But they are getting it, it is a collaborative effort, it really is.”
Cano is thankful to Superintendent Lance Stout and the board of education gave her the the opportunity to get the program off the ground.
“Other schools have it,” she said. “I always thought that it was such a need for our students. Even though we are talking about less than 20 students, it is going to make such a huge difference for them to have a connection and someone that is there specifically to develop their oral language skills. That is it. Until we do that, we can’t really focus on academic learning or anything else.
“Really, before, we would get a brand new student and they would not speak a word of English and they would be in the regular ed classroom,” she explained. “They would receive maybe 30 minutes of support from the ESL teacher. The rest of the time it was just a sink or swim. We would give them support, but it wasn’t something we were specifically focusing on. I felt it was something we needed. We had a need and were very fortunate to find Cindy.
“Just to have one person that is that key person for those students,” she added. “That is what I wanted to make sure they had.”
Divsalar truly enjoys her new position at USD 480. Teaching students to be able to comfortably relate to their surroundings, she said, has been very exciting.
“I am so excited, it is really fun,” she said. “I feel like I am really helping them and helping them learn the language, which is really important.”