By Michelle Chance
Deborah Kohls teaches second-grade English Language Learners (ELL) four hours every day at Maricopa Elementary School.
MES has four Structured English Immersion (SEI) classrooms that provide smaller class sizes and more resources for children learning a new language.
Kohls said the program is vital to the community. Kohls said she had a message to political leaders who’d like to see the tax pulled.
“One of the things that I think our country was founded on was a free, public education for everyone, and it was to make things equal for everyone. And if you’re pulling resources and money from us you’re not making that possible anymore,” Kohls said.
The majority of ELL students in Kohls’ class are Spanish speakers. The teacher instructs only in English and said children usually show immense progress by second quarter.
“When they’re amongst other kids who are growing at their same rate, their confidence is boosted,” Kohls said.
SEI classrooms face challenges other than funding
The program at MUSD’s high school has its differences from the SEI classes at lower grade levels.
Emily Panter, fluent in English and Spanish, is the only SEI teacher at MHS and said she has trouble motivating older students to perform well on tests, adding many of them feel more comfortable with their friends in SEI and fear transitioning out.
“I really explain to them how it’s to their own benefit to put in the effort,” Panter said.
Additionally, she said the class often has an isolating effect on her students, who are separated for half the school day from mainstream classrooms.
And, though the program provides high schoolers more technology resources, Panter said the state needs to change requirements to ensure small class sizes.
“In order to have an SEI classroom, you have to have 20 students within three grade levels, which I’ve always had that, but not enough to make it two classes,” Panter said.
Of Panter’s 26 students this year, 23 are Hispanic. The biggest challenge in class, Panter said, is the majority of students speak the same native language – and continue to prefer speaking it in class over English.
Last year, the SEI class at MHS was split between ability levels, with 20 basic English learners in Panter’s morning class and six intermediate level learners later in the day.
“The afternoon class always did better because it’s easier to separate them,” Panter said. “If you’re going to have this structure, it really needs to be super small.”
How are students placed in SEI classes?
Students are required to test in instances when their registration paperwork indicates they speak a second language at home, Panter said. Other times, teachers will refer students to testing.
Based on results, students are labeled pre-emergent, basic, intermediate or proficient. The first two categories require four hours of daily SEI study; intermediate requires two.
Destiny Cruz and her classmate Graciela Brambila, 15, spend four hours every school day under Panter’s instruction. For the past four years, Panter has developed the curriculum based on state standards and what her students need to succeed.
They take lessons on writing, reading, grammar and listening and speaking in English. Panter’s instruction includes lectures and lessons through technology platforms.
“For me, it was very hard the first day. It’s difficult because I don’t understand everything,” Brambila said.
Brambila and Cruz help each other in their traditional studies, like math, outside of their SEI classroom, where teachers usually do not instruct in Spanish.
This story appears in the October issue of InMaricopa.