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Mastering a new language in Mitchell

Becky Larson discusses the different types of point of views authors utilize during her sixth-grade English and language arts class on Wednesday at the Mitchell Middle School. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Brittney Eide can recall the day she noticed an entire lunch table of Mitchell Middle School students saying "milk" in a different language.

The assistant principal noted a new student, who didn't speak English, was also sitting at the table.

"You can hear the kids talk about what it's called in their language and pretty soon the whole table is calling 'milk' something else. It's fun," Eide said. " ... You get to see a whole different world, with the stories and the different family dynamics."

This immersion tactic is often used by the Mitchell School District with its ESL — English as a Second Language — students, who are also referred to as English Learners (EL).

And it's been proving successful, according to Eide, who oversees the English Language Learner (ELL) program at the Mitchell School District, along with Curriculum Director Sherri Becker.

"We have second graders testing out, elementary kids testing out before they even get to us at the middle school," Becker said, adding all EL students are required to take a test when they begin schooling, and again to check on progress until they test out of the program. "I do think that's in relationship with total immersion."

In the past five years, the amount of EL students in the Mitchell School District has nearly tripled, with a majority of students in elementary grade levels.

In the 2011-12 school year, 37 EL students were in the district. And by the 2016-17 school year, the number jumped to 107 students. The majority of the students' first language is Spanish, a total that climbed in the same time period from four to 57 students.

The trend is similar across South Dakota, where Department of Education officials have seen the number of EL students grow from 4,563 in 2013 to 5,277 in 2017.

"Previously, when we think about English Learners in South Dakota, it was Sioux Falls and Huron, where a majority of our students were. And that's still true," said Yutzil Becker, a Title III coordinator with the SDDOE. "But we're also seeing a lot more (EL) students arrive in our smaller districts in the state."

Each EL student coming into the Mitchell School District has specific needs, with some knowing English well and others not understanding a single word, according to Superintendent Joe Graves.

Graves said the district has two goals for EL students, with the first being to help the student master the English language as fast as possible. The second, he said, is to make sure the student is also learning all of their other subjects in the meantime and not being held back by linguistics.

"We don't want the fact that they can't speak English well to interfere with their math. Otherwise, they're just falling back, falling back, falling back," Graves said. "Those two things aren't always consistent and the fastest way to get somebody to learn English is to just immerse them."

Programs expand with steady stream of students

As the number of EL students grows, so do the district's programs.

Within each elementary building and the middle school building, there is at least one ENL-endorsed teacher. ENL stands for English as a New Language.

As the state pushed for more teachers to obtain the endorsement a few years ago, the Mitchell School District noticed a lack of interest among educators, according to Sherri Becker.

But, as soon as the teachers began seeing more EL students enter their classrooms, interest sparked.

"It makes your life in the classroom more rewarding when you know that you're giving EL students what they need to grow and develop linguistically," Becker said. "We've definitely seen interest grow in the ENL program."

In the fall of 2016, the district hired an ELL tutor, who works with children as they enter the school system shortly after being tested. Completely bilingual, the tutor has proven to be immensely helpful, Eide said, especially in communicating with parents.

Serving as an interpreter, Eide said, the tutor will attend conferences and speak with parents so they feel comfortable and understand how well their children are doing in school.

On top of hiring the tutor, Graves said technology has proven helpful in serving EL students and their families.

Auto-translation software, which at times can translate things "oddly," also has also been "a dramatic step forward," according to Graves, who uses the technology to draft letters for parents.

Overcoming the language barrier

Of the 107 EL students, the district reported nine different first languages among the students — the highest within the previous five years.

While Eide first thought this might present a challenge, she's found it's easier than it seemed.

"We're finding that when they're learning English, you're learning English and sometimes your home-based language isn't a hinder when it comes to teaching that," Eide said.

Online programs, such as Rosetta Stone and Imagine Learning, are also used to help students, she said. And, once a student tests out of the program, the school district continues to monitor the learner for two years after that date, helping out when needed.

But, overall immersion seems the best for EL students, especially at a younger grade level.

"Right now, at the Mitchell School District, we are seeing more kiddos come into the elementaries, which is actually where we want them," Eide said. "They're so eager to learn, they're so ready for new things, they jump in and they just go."