Rock Hill schools try to keep up with rise in non-English speakers

Aarti Parkh, center, from India works Friday with Fabiola Ibarra from Mexico in Kevina Satterwhite's class at Rock Hill High School.
Aarti Parkh, center, from India works Friday with Fabiola Ibarra from Mexico in Kevina Satterwhite's class at Rock Hill High School.

When Fabio Nuñez arrived in South Carolina from Costa Rica five years ago, he knew only a few words of English.

Now, the 17-year-old sophomore at Rock Hill High can tell you all about his plans to graduate from high school and start his own auto mechanics shop.

"When I first got here, it was kind of frustrating because I didn't speak any language at all," he said. "When I came here, the school year just started, and I only knew two or three words. But then when I was in my English classes, I started learning more English. It became pretty easy to me. ... Now, I like it here a lot."

Since the 2003-2004 school year, the number of ESOL -- English for speakers of other languages -- students has nearly doubled in Rock Hill schools, from 369 that year to 652 now.

School district officials are trying hard to make sure ESOL programs keep pace with that growth.

ESOL students in the district represent 21 countries and 18 languages. They all have different backgrounds and different needs.

Last year, the Rock Hill school board approved two additional full-time ESOL positions, bringing the total number of full-time ESOL teachers to 10.

Those teachers use a variety of techniques to reach students, including pulling students out of their normal class for part of the day and sending ESOL teachers into traditional classrooms.

The district also hired Gail Rogers as the ESOL coach. Rogers, who was the first certified ESOL teacher in the district, provides support and training for teachers to make sure they have the best, most up-to-date techniques for reaching English language learners.

Although teaching positions have been added, Rogers said the ESOL program will have to keep growing as long as the number of students increases.

Right now, the ESOL budget is in the ballpark of $400,000, said Missy Brakefield, director of federal programs.

Teaching teachers

A major asset for the school district and its ESOL program is a nearly $700,000 grant awarded to Winthrop University in July by the U.S. Department of Education.

The grant -- Teaching Teachers to Work With English Language Learners -- will give 50 teachers the chance to take classes toward ESOL certification and 75 teachers an opportunity to take a one-time class on the basics of working with ESOL students.

The grant also will allow 50 Winthrop faculty members to attend summer sessions on how to prepare future teachers for working with students who speak little English.

An example of something teachers might not think about is the way idiomatic expressions such as "Cut the lights on" or "You're driving me bananas" would sound to a non-native English speaker.

"You're making them aware of things they take for granted in their language and in their social environment," said Elke Schneider, an assistant professor in the College of Education and co-director of the grant.

Winthrop also has partnered with the schools through its Teaching Fellows program.

South Carolina Teaching Fellows receive scholarship money for college in exchange for a promise to teach in the state after graduation. Each college or university chooses a focus for the program. At Winthrop, the focus is English-as-a-second-language.

Winthrop Teaching Fellows must do 50 hours of service in the schools and related community organizations during their freshman, sophomore and junior years. That service can involve helping the teachers or working directly with ESOL students.

In addition to lending a much-needed hand to the school district, Susanne Okey, campus director for Winthrop's Teaching Fellows program, said the service work benefits the future teachers.

"They will have had prior experience working with children from different language backgrounds," she said. "So that challenge, which is quite a challenge for beginning teachers, will, I hope, be a lot easier for them."

Developing trust

One existing struggle from the school district's end is getting parents to play an active role in their children's education.

ESOL teachers within the school district hold parent nights and do home visits to help incorporate parents.

"So many times, the parents feel intimidated about coming to the school," Rogers said. Parents might not speak English, and visiting a child's school might not be customary in their culture.

"We're trying to develop that trust and have them come in and get involved," Rogers said. "So many times, parent involvement makes the difference in student success."

The school district also relies on organizations such as the York County International Center to provide services like job, health and legal referrals as well as translation services.

Having those services available at one location means parents don't need to show up at the schools asking for that kind of help. When ESOL teachers only have one class period a day to work with their students, that can make a major impact.

Although being an ESOL student has its difficult days, students like Jessica Quezada, a 15-year-old whose parents moved here from El Salvador before she was born, see the benefits too.

At home, Quezada speaks Spanish. At school, she learns English.

Quezada said she wants to go to college and become a pediatrician.

"I am thankful for speaking both of them because I have an advantage that other people don't have," she said.