Lincoln-West High School Rich in Culture, But Sparse in Tools to Teach English

Thomas Ott, Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 21, 2009

Students attending the school on Cleveland’s near West Side [Lincoln-West High School] hail from more than 30 countries and speak more than two dozen languages.

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Lincoln-West is a district clearinghouse for high school English language learners. Nearly a third of the 1,500-plus students speak limited or no English, one of the highest percentages of any high school in the state.

Districtwide, about 2,700 Cleveland students are learning to speak English.

Some of the teenagers are from refugee camps, where education is bare-bones, if it exists at all. They may arrive illiterate in their own languages, then are expected to quickly pick up a new one loaded with words that sound alike or have multiple, unrelated meanings.

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Before the exams [Ohio Graduation Tests in reading, writing, math, science and social studies], the students listen to instructions recorded in their languages.

During the tests, they can consult crossover dictionaries or have translators read them questions. {snip}

Some of the students slog six years to complete courses, pass the state tests and get their diplomas; yet their exam scores are stacked up against teenagers who learn English from infancy. {snip}

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The task strains Lincoln-West’s faculty.

The school has only 10 teachers at the school certified for bilingual classes in the standardized-test subjects. District officials say they struggle to find enough qualified teachers. In fact, schools nationwide are short on staff to deal with surging numbers of non-English speakers, a new study by Education Week magazine says.

Even with training, Lincoln-West teachers might not know some languages spoken at the school, like Yoruba, the tongue of western Nigeria, or Dinka, from the Sudan. Fourteen aides help fill in the gaps, but in some cases teachers have to make points by drawing pictures or acting.

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The majority of the district’s English language learners are Hispanic. Many are born in the United States, but their families use Spanish at home to stay connected to their roots, said Jessica Gonzales of Esperanza, a Hispanic social-service agency on the near West Side.

Gonzales said the students from Puerto Rico also stay physically connected to the island, going back for long holiday visits–timed to get the cheapest airfare–or during the summer. The trips can cause students to miss weeks of school or regress in their use of English, she said.

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Students who come from refugee camps or other stark environments pose a huge challenge. Before teachers can get into the meat of their subjects, they may have to show children how to hold a pencil, turn a paper right-side-up, work a combination lock or even use a restroom.

Some of the teenagers are from countries with record-keeping so sparse that parents don’t know when their children were born. Relief agencies routinely put down Jan. 1 as the date and guess at the years.

Many of the students’ homelands have no factories or live under authoritarian rule, so the teens have no context to call on when ninth-grade social studies teacher Brigitte Bolgar talks about industrialization and democracy. And if they pass Bolgar’s class, they are on their own–the school has no social-studies teachers trained to work with English language learners in the upper grades.

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 Students by Ethnicity 

 This School 

 Ohio School Average 

% American Indian

n/a

n/a

% Asian

3%

1%

% Hispanic

46%

3%

% Black

25%

20%

% White

22%

72%

% Unknown

4%

6%

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