The voices that call to them
“Races didn’t bother the Americans. They were something better than any race. They were a People. They were the first self-constituted, self-created People in the history of the world.”
— Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist and U.S. government worker Archibald
MacLeish, The American Cause (1940)
There are political winds swirling around Sarah Cox, great crevasses in the
iceberg of school funding she must maneuver. The confusion that comes with
directing Summit School District’s English as a Second Language program is
frustrating, but it is a necessary piece of what she describes as “her calling.”
Cox’s job is like that of an expedition leader, compiling reports charting
the course of the ESL program, interpreting the impact of federal and state
legislation and pushing for more training for her teams of teachers. Eight
schools, more than 40 teachers, paraprofessionals, data crunchers and
principals spending more than three-quarters of a million dollars on 405
students is coordinated on a budget of $1,500. And to think she never
intended on going into education.
“My mother actually pushed me into it,” said Cox, who studied psychology and
Spanish at Washington State. “But I gave it a try and
did a college teaching experience in city schools in Seattle. There was so
much diversity, and I fell in love with it. I went to Gonzaga and did my
graduate teaching program and, a week after school was out, I was driving in
my car to Southern California, without a job. But that was the place to be
for English language learning.”
Cox is looking at the big picture of ESL education. Summit’s
language-learning population grew 2,000 percent in eight years. Although the ESL population increased three-fold statewide in 10 years, Department of Education spending on ESL students has increased one-quarter – about $90 per student. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the state’s English Language Proficiency Act (ELPA) and other laws that dictate services for the students are continually revised. And Cox now must plan for the impacts on funding, testing and teacher qualifications
from the “No Child Left Behind” education act signed by President George W.
Bush in February.
“It’s not an easy job on teachers’ pay,” Cox said. “It’s an awful lot of work
when you don’t have the resources behind you to delegate.”
That might have something to do with why the program already has had five
coordinators. The others moved up, moved back to the classroom or pursued
related teaching positions. The program is only five years old.
The relatively new teachers’ greatest asset, though, is an empathy for the students and a desire to connect with distant cultures.
The principal at Upper Blue Elementary asked Nancy Shaffer to work as an ESL
paraprofessional that first year. She works on the front lines with the
students: assessing their level of linguistic skills, giving them extra
attention on math and reading lessons. She teaches her own classes using
games, drawings, role playing, flash cards and books to help the idiom sink
“I don’t speak Spanish, or Russian,” Shaffer said. “My mother is Japanese,
and I didn’t speak English until I was 3. The funny thing is, I can
understand my mother and my aunt, but I don’t speak Japanese, either. I
understand what these kids are going through, because I’ve watched my mother
struggle with English all my life.”
Other teachers and paraprofessionals come for different reasons, giving each school’s ESL
program its own character. Each site follows the same curriculum, uses
similar strategies and materials, but the faculty members also employ their
personalities, experiences and talents to build the relationships it takes to
help children break through the language barrier.
The two other teachers at Upper Blue lived in foreign countries. At the high
school, one loves diversity and adopted a baby from another country, one
earned her Ph.D. in the field, one is the bilingual mother of an ESL student
and another is retired and just wants to help.
For Silverthorne Elementary paraprofessional Maureen Schultz, known to
students as Ms. Moe, it was a personal connection.
“I was working with the winter activities at the rec center, and a lot of
Latinos go there – they don’t ski,” said Schultz, who also volunteers with
Mountain Mentors. “I saw this little girl, and I just couldn’t get her face
out of my mind. My kids are out of the house, I look at what I have and what
I can give. I hope my (own) kids see what I’m doing and it rubs off.”
Cox hopes to help the schools’ programs with continuing development.
She’ll lead a 20-member ESL committee of administrators, teachers and
community professionals in writing a handbook to introduce newcomers to the
field and outline policies. Cox said the greatest need is training for
teachers, and she’ll be able to start planning for it when the dust from
contract negotiations and the district’s budget process settle. A big step
also will be getting parents of ESL students involved in the school.
“We’re moving in the correct direction,” Cox said. “And I’m motivated, not
because it’s my profession; it’s more of a calling. What greater gift can you
give than the ability to interact in the community where you live?”
Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or
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