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In review and moving forward

Reid Williams

Editor’s Note: For the past 14 weeks, the Summit Daily News has presented a story each Tuesday about the challenges and successes of the English as a Second Language program and diversity in the Summit School District and surrounding community. Today marks the final story in the series.

SUMMIT COUNTY – On March 13, Upper Blue Elementary student Taylor Youngman gave a speech to the Summit School Board that has served as a guide for the four months the Summit Daily News has examined the school district’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

At the board meeting, Youngman and other students gave an encore reading of their speeches for the Summit-Lake Dillon Optimist Club Oratorical Contest.

The students’ theme was how they would change the world.

“I would teach my friend as much English as I can,” Youngman said. “She’s my best friend, and I want her to understand me.”

Fourteen news articles have shown that “understanding” might be the best description of the mission and outcome of the ESL program, and this series, Chasing the Common Language, has attempted to encourage it, too. The stories have shown that the impact of immigrant students with limited English proficiency on Summit’s schools and their resources is a phenomenon that goes back 20 years. The photographs accompanying the stories have shown women and men, teachers and parents, responding to a burst of color corresponding to a 2,000-percent growth in the schools’ English-language learners.

The impact extends beyond the schools. For instance, Summit High School’s graduation rate, the proportion of students who complete ninth through 12th grade, is 80.8 percent. A closer look at the numbers, however, shows that 56 percent of Hispanics graduate, compared to 86 percent of white; the statistic could be a result of language obstacles, transiency of families or other factors, but indicates those who haven’t yet perfected English are entering the workforce sooner.

Heather Boylan, a Summit High ESL teacher who earned her Ph.D. this year studying sociological aspects of the program, said the success of the students has ramifications on Summit County.

“Some of them come in with limited skills and never get the basics – those are the ones that get taken advantage of,” Boylan said. “We’re turning them out to work when they could be developing intellectually.”

But the scenario is not so dire. Now that school is out, district ESL coordinator Sarah Cox is compiling the results of year-end testing to see how many students have progressed to the point where they “exit” the program. Cox said she was optimistic about this year’s achievement.

“So many third-graders have achieved proficiency,” Cox said. “It’s great. And I have a good feeling about looking through the other grades.”

Cox’s, and other teachers’, work will continue throughout the summer. More than 20 teachers will work toward completing their special endorsements for ESL teaching. In August, the school district will run a Language Camp – a summer school to brush up English skills before school starts again.

Reporter’s notes

I’ve been fortunate to travel quite a bit, even before I became a journalist.

I attempted to infiltrate lands where the people spoke Spanish, French, German, Dutch, Magyar or Cockney and other dialects that frustrated me so much I never wrote down their names – and I spoke none of them.

So, I empathize with the brave families who come to Summit County without the ability to speak English. A reservation misunderstanding once left me with an upright seat in a full car on a 12-hour overnight train ride, when I wanted a sleeping car.

Many a kind person has given me directions when I was lost, and impressed me in doing so in my native language. I stared down a man on a bus until he got off, all because I could not tell him he was making the young woman next to him uncomfortable. When you don’t speak the native language, you are at the mercy of your hosts.

The ironic thing is the people coming to Summit County don’t already speak English. Multilingualism dominates the world.

Although there are more than 6,000 languages in the world, connecting languages such as English, Spanish, French, Arabic and Chinese link a majority of the Earth’s population. And it is the poorest people in the world who speak the most languages.

In the United States, bilingualism is the exception. That’s why it’s even more encouraging to see the response of people in Summit County to an influx of immigrants who need help learning English.

They, like most of the world, place a value on the sharing of culture and language, and they believe everyone will benefit from it. This is encouraging, considering the trend in the growth of the ESL student population likely will continue.

In the coming weeks, the Summit Daily News hopes to publish a collection of stories from this Chasing the Common Language series. I hope you read it and it gives you insight into the life of a neighbor, a coworker or a friend.

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or rwilliams@summitdaily.com


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