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Oregon class helps speakers of indigenous languages adjust

September 29, 2018

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — The students in Highland Hills Elementary School’s Newcomers class know the difference between the numbers 15 and 50.

Regardless, they take a few minutes during a math lesson to repeat them over and over again — “fif-TEEN, fif-TY, fif-TEEN, fif-TY” — emphasizing the last syllables that distinguish the two.

As they learn English, repetition is an important part of understanding the vocabulary for all subjects, from the pronunciation of numbers to learning the words for different parts of the body.

“The Newcomers program is all about helping our kids express what they know,” said teacher Loretta Fitterer.

The program is open to third- through eighth-graders, who attend a class at Highland Hills Elementary School, and ninth- through 12th-graders, who meet at Hermiston High School. To qualify for the program students must have been in the United States for less than a year and a half, and must speak “level one” English — meaning they have little to no experience with the language.

Though the district had a Newcomers program about 10 years ago, it rebooted a more comprehensive program this year to accommodate the growing number of students coming from outside the U.S.

The Hermiston School District has seen an influx of students who speak indigenous languages in the past few years, according to district staff that teach in the Newcomers program. Some of the most common languages those students speak at home are Mayan languages such as Mam, Q’anjob’al and K’iche’, which are all spoken primarily in Guatemala. The languages are all distinct from Spanish and from each other.

According to data from the district office, there are currently 21 third through eighth grade students in the Newcomers program, and 22 at the high school.

Those students spend part of their day learning vocabulary for math and science, as well as English grammar.

Colleen Muldowney, who teaches the younger students in the program, said the goal is to have them spend about one year in the program before moving into a mainstream classroom.

Fitterer said while many of the students speak an indigenous language at home, most also speak some Spanish.

“For probably about half of my kids, English will be their third language,” she said.

Fitterer said she has seen an uptick in indigenous speakers in the past four or five years. According to Jonathan Shaklee, an immigration lawyer in Kennewick, the reason for the influx of families coming from Guatemala — as well as El Salvador and Honduras, known as “the Northern Triangle” — are different than those coming from Mexico. Generally speaking, he said, they are not fleeing just poverty.

“I can’t point to the specifics of (Hermiston),” he said. “But most kids (from the Northern Triangle) are fleeing real horrific violence in their home countries. There are really high homicide rates, gangs and transnational crime organizations — and those countries are not able to protect women and children.”

Fitterer said the biggest factor in student success with English is if they have attended school in their home country.

“The concept of reading, forming sentences — all of that transfers to the second or third language easily and quickly,” she said.

Fitterer said there are no district employees who speak indigenous languages. Most interpreters or translators communicate with families in Spanish.

Cathy Keeney and Alejandra Maldonado are home liaisons for the Hermiston School District. They said there may be one parent in a family who doesn’t speak any English or Spanish, but they are usually able to communicate with another family member, or get someone who can translate from Spanish to the family’s native language.

Home liaisons serve as interpreters for school events, make phone calls on behalf of teachers for discipline or attendance issues, and help parents understand the paperwork that comes home from school.

While both Fitterer and Muldowney are fluent in Spanish, and interact with students in both languages, all their instruction is in English.

They rely heavily on pictures and physical learning, as well as drawing connections to cognates, or words that are similar in both languages.

Fitterer gave two students pieces of paper — one with the number “2″ and one with the number “62,” and had them stand a few feet away from each other. Then, she presented a third student with three pieces of paper: one with a “greater than” sign, one with an ’equals” sign, and one with a “less than” sign. With the help of their classmates, the students decided how they should be organized so that they were showing the comparative value of the numbers — “2″ is less than “62.” As they worked, Fitterer had them recite the numbers.

Fitterer has been a bilingual teacher in the district since 1993, and said it’s important to acknowledge the schooling that kids have already had prior to coming to the U.S.

“You need to affirm the students’ culture and language,” Fitterer said. “I’ve tried to learn a few words of whatever language the kids I’ve had at that time speak,” she said.

She recalled a student many years ago — he was hardworking and learned quickly, but one day he broke down in class.

“One day he came in at recess, just put his head down, and cried,” she said. “He said, ‘in (my home country), my teachers loved me. I knew everything. Here, they think I’m stupid.’”

She said she makes sure to tell students that it’s not a matter of lacking knowledge, but developing the language to communicate what they may already know.

That comes into play when teaching students math and science — especially with a range of third- to eighth-graders in the same class.

“To account for grade levels, we are teaching the language of math across grade levels,” said Muldowney. “So students can access the content they’ll see in sixth, seventh grades.”

InterMountain Education Service District also has several programs for migrant students, including summer school, tutoring, migrant preschool, college assistance and school-to-home support. They provide these services in Boardman, Hermiston, Irrigon, Milton-Freewater and Umatilla.

As students finished up their lessons and lined up for lunch, one continued to recite the numbers she had just learned.

“How do you say ‘one million?’” she asked in Spanish.

Muldowney said she’s happy with the progress she’s seen as a result of the more specialized class.

“I think a solid year of language across curricula will help them this year and beyond,” she said.

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Information from: East Oregonian, http://www.eastoregonian.com

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