Disability of language: English learners struggle in schools

How do you teach a teenage refugee from a war-torn country how to read, write and speak English in time for graduation? How do you teach the teen to do well on a standardized test?

It’s an extreme example, but not outside the realm of the Federal Way School District’s English Language Learner’s (ELL) program. The program integrates non-native English speakers into an American school system, and is charged with preparing them to graduate and master state exams.

ELL is a growing program in the district. English learners and the district’s special education program were the topics of discussion at a district Focus Forum held Tuesday. The forum invites parents and community members to ask questions and express concern to district officials.

The forum, held at Todd Beamer High School, had a panel-style format.

The panel on English Language Learners — the district’s program that integrates non-native English speakers into the school system, both culturally and in reading, writing and communication skills — drew few not already working in the program, despite being a fast-growing section of the Federal Way student body.

Judy Lemmel, who administers the ELL program, revealed striking facts about the program: There are 3,042 students in the ELL program (out of roughly 22,000 students) who are taught by 40 certified teachers and 50 para-educators and instructional coaches.

The most common foreign languages found among ELL students are Spanish, Korean, Russian and Ukrainian, in that order. A total of roughly 113 languages are spoken by students in the district. Federal Way High School has the highest population of ELL students at 150 — most schools have between 70 and 80.

Students in ELL filter out after meeting standards on an English competency test. Lemmel said that younger students who enter the program around kindergarten usually leave the program quicker than older students.

Lemmel said the biggest problem for ELL students is the way they are instructed in general education classes. Students in ELL cannot be in “sheltered” classes for more than 50 percent of the school day. When an ELL student enters a general education class, the teacher may lecture in a way that an English learner might only partly comprehend.

Lemmel said that not enough general education teachers are trained in and use what is called “language acquisition” instruction. That type of instruction emphasizes slower, visual presentations, increased interactivity and working in groups. Teachers could help this problem without slowing down non-ELL learners by teaching to different levels, Lemmel said.

Teachers also need more training in cultural competency, she said. She said the district has done “a lot of cultural competency training,” but teachers sometimes consider English language learners as special education students, even though they might not have a specific learning disability.

The fastest growing segment of the English language learners program are students who primarily speak Spanish. Lemmel said that Federal Way draws Hispanic families due to the relatively lower cost of housing and food prices.

Federal Way also receives a share of refugees from war-torn or disaster-ravaged countries (these students are placed in Federal Way usually by the federal government). Some students might move to Federal Way after living in a refugee camp, which means they’ve probably been out of school for a long time. Their transition into a culturally and linguistically-foreign school system is made all the harder by the atrocities they’ve suffered — and then these students are expected to perform well on standardized tests.

Federal Way offers older ELL students the opportunity to simultaneously obtain high school and college credits through the Gateway to College program with Highline Community College. The district also operates a GED “Latino night school.” These two programs are helping older ELL students who may enter school too late to master English language, writing and communication in time for graduation.

The next focus forum will be at 6 p.m. on May 17 at Todd Beamer High School. The topic will be “standards-based education.”


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