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Publish Date: 3/23/2005

Legacy Elementary School students Ken Vang, left, 9, and Zong Vang, 9, have an English as a second language class with their teacher Betty Schulte on Thursday in Firestone. The two cousins’ primary language is Hmong. The St. Vrain School District’s ESL program serves many students whose primary language is not Spanish.Times-Call/Lewis Geyer

Tongue Twister
ESL teachers grapple with 55 languages

LONGMONT — Boulder County’s high-tech industries continue to attract people from around the world. That has forced English as a second language teachers in the St. Vrain Valley School District to get creative in how they teach students who speak other languages.

Fifty-five different dialects are spoken in the schools, although Spanish remains the primary language besides English.

Of 3,054 students taking part in the district’s ESL classes this year, 2,782 of them are Spanish speakers. Chinese is the second-largest subgroup, with 32 students, followed closely by Russian with 25.

ESL classes are small group sessions designed to give students who speak languages other than English the extra help they need in learning to speak, read and write the language.

“A lot of us speak at least some Spanish, but very few of us speak Hmong, Cambodian or Russian,” said Betty Schulte, an ESL teacher at both Prairie Ridge Elementary and Legacy Elementary schools in the Tri-Towns.

It is difficult to get those (non-Spanish speaking) children to understand certain concepts, she said.

With Spanish speakers who are having a hard time understanding something, “we might use a Spanish word so they can get it,” she said. But because children from other cultures are “not being supported in their native language, their ability in English varies.”

Many Spanish speakers can attend bilingual schools in the district, where they are taught in both English and Spanish. But that opportunity isn’t available for students who speak Farsi, Tamil and Teluga.

Schulte said about half of her students speak languages other than Spanish.

Audrey LaFerlita, the ESL teacher at Eagle Crest Elementary and Niwot Elementary schools, said about 10 of her 20 ESL students at Eagle Crest speak languages other than Spanish, including Russian or Chinese.

LaFerlita teaches children from Afghanistan, Denmark, Sweden, China, Japan, Korea and India. In the past, she has worked with Cambodians, Romanians and Russians.

The only language she speaks is English.

“I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand some Spanish,” she said.

So LaFerlita approaches all her ESL students in the same way.

“I use a lot of pictures and gestures and body language. That’s the way I deal with everybody, even my Spanish speakers,” she said.

LaFerlita said it is harder sometimes to teach English to Spanish speakers because they speak the language to each other at school and at home with their parents, so it is not as pressing for them to learn English to communicate.

Other students, like her Danish and Swedish speakers, don’t have a huge support network of people who speak their native tongue, she said. That forces them to immerse themselves in English and to want to learn it as fast as they can.

“There is no possibility people will understand them. They have to communicate all the time in English,” LaFerlita said.

In her more than 15 years of teaching, LaFerlita said, the countries her students come from has changed dramatically. Now, many come from Mexico, but 15 years ago, many came from southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. Longmont still has a large population of Cambodians.

And now she’s seeing more families from India.

ESL students are pulled out of their regular classes for between 30 and 40 minutes a day, said Mary Sires, the school district’s executive director of student services. At the secondary level, bilingual students have one or two periods a day of English-language instruction.

Despite the diversity of languages spoken in the district, the fastest-growing population in the St. Vrain Valley is Hispanic, she said. In 2004, 30.7 percent of the district’s students were minorities, with 84.1 percent of those of Hispanic origin.

Sires told the St. Vrain Valley Board of Education on Wednesday night that the number of bilingual students in the district has climbed steadily since 1998, when 22 percent of the population was from minority groups.

When she first came to St. Vrain, four of its elementary schools were bilingual, she said. Now, nine of them are.

St. Vrain serves 1,188 bilingual students at those nine schools.

ESL programs have proven not to work as well as dual-language programs, Sires said.

The current district ESL program turns students over to literacy teachers the moment they can speak and understand the language.

Over time, students who participated in ESL classes did worse on the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests than students who went through the district’s bilingual program, she said.

Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-684-5211, or by e-mail at

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