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With 105 languages in Federal Way schools, interpreters stay busy

Languages spoken by students in the Federal Way School District. - Kyra Low/The Mirror
Languages spoken by students in the Federal Way School District.
— image credit: Kyra Low/The Mirror

The English Language Learner (ELL) program has become a huge part of the Federal Way School District.

In 1984, ELL students accounted for 0.62 percent of the school district's population. Twenty years later, that number had jumped to 10.29 percent. Now there are more than 2,700 students in the program — along with more than 30 ELL specialists.

There are 105 different languages spoken throughout the school district and more than 80 languages served in the ELL program. Some students speak another language at home, but are proficient in English and therefore bypass the ELL program.

To serve those 80 languages, the district employs 64 interpreters. There is one Arabic, two Chinese, one Farsi, two Azari, one Haitian Creole, seven Korean, 17 Russian-Ukrainian, one Romanian, one Samoan, 27 Spanish, two Tagalog, one Turkish and one Vietnamese.

The district also contracts with two companies who translate documents into all the various languages. There are about 60 documents each year that need translating, ELL director Clarissa Parnell said.

Interpreters are used countlessly during the school year, especially when parents visit and the school wants to ensure the parents receive the correct information — not just what their kids translate to them.

"Schools will often use interpreters for disciplinary or academic performance, ELL or not," Parnell said. "The students may know English, but the parents don't. We don't want students to be the one interpreting. We want to make sure it's clear and correct."

The interpreters are also used during student-led conferences. In the fall, over a two-day period, interpreters were used 133 times, and 113 times again in the spring.

The program

Specialists are certified teachers who are also endorsed in either a second language or as an English as a second language teacher (and sometimes both). They are the backbone of the program. There are specialists at each school site, and some schools — mostly the secondary schools — have two, ELL director Clarissa Parnell said.

When students enter the district and are new to Washington state or the country, they are given a proficiency test, which they take each year until they test out of the ELL program.

There are four levels to the program. The fourth level is where the ELL student transitions into regular classes.

Students in elementary school ELL are often pulled from classes for ELL work. In some cases, the ELL teachers will assist the regular teacher in the classroom. In the middle school and high school levels, students take various courses depending on the level of proficiency.

There is no set deadline on when students should transition out of the ELL program, although the average time is about five years.

Often times, students will hone basic communication skills within three years. However, academic vocabulary can take up to seven years due to more formal speech.

"It would be like going to Russia and taking a political science class," Parnell said. "How long would that take you? When the kids have been in for about five years, we are really looking at trying to (help) them acquire English (skills). Sometimes kids come to us with no formal schooling or from refugee camps where education was not the priority at the time — survival was."

ELL and the WASL

ELL students are put through the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) quite quickly.

"The kids in the program make progress in the language, they exit in the right rates and move from level to level," Parnell said. "The challenge is always to pass the WASL, it's a major challenge."

ELL students take the math WASL in their first year.

"Math is its own language," Parnell said. "Doing word problems when you don't understand the different parts of the language, it's hard to pass that test. It's like going to Korea and passing their exam in math."

Some students do pass the WASL and surprise them, but many do struggle. It's a struggle for the school district because these ELL students are part of the bracket that makes up the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), part of the No Child Left Behind Act. Districts who do not meet AYP more than two years in a row can face consequences, including some loss of federal funding.

Making it easy

Starting Aug. 10, the school district will have interpreters on hand at The Commons mall for ELL registration. Korean, Russian and Spanish interpreters will be available 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 10 through Aug. 27 (Monday through Thursday). Those in need of registering who speak another language can make an appointment for their language interpreter. District officials will give the students the proficiency test right there, complete all the registration paperwork and talk about the schools. There will also be school supplies for those who need it. Donations are welcome.

For more information, call (253) 945-2094.

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