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What Hall teachers do to help students learning English language
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East Hall Middle School 8th grader Ivan Grimaldo, 14, attempts to bounce a pencil into a cup during ESOL class Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, in the school's media center. The class was letting off steam from studying by playing the game "Minute to Win It". - photo by Scott Rogers

In Georgia, an average of 7% of students are enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Languages. In Hall County Schools, that number is 22% — a total of 5,800 students in the county’s 37 schools.

Hall has about 130 ESOL teachers, and most aren’t bilingual. Anna Sargent – Hall’s director of Title III, ESOL and migrant programs — said they just need to know the ESOL strategies to be able to support the students.

“It helps them empathize to know where they’re coming from,” she said. “Many kids are scared because they can’t communicate with the teacher.”

The top three most spoken languages in Hall County are English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

How it works

The district determines a student’s ESOL eligibility through a screening process, beginning when their parents enroll them. 

The registration form contains three questions about a person’s native language. If the parents respond with anything other than English, Sargent said the students language skills are tested. 

“Some students may have a basic understanding, some do not,” she said. “They’re all at different levels, but the teachers do a good job of using their professional learning and resources to support them.” 

Teachers later determine whether a student can leave the program based on test results at the end of the year.

At the high school level, students new to the country go to Hall’s Newcomer Academy for half of their school day, whereas the elementary and middle students have ESOL programs in their schools.

Not every ESOL program is the same in Hall. Sargent said the types of strategies may differ from school to school.

Allyson George, ESOL teacher at East Hall Middle, teaches science and language arts and incorporates ESOL strategies into her classes, which are mixed with English learners and other students.

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East Hall Middle School's Kathryn Hernandez, 13, competes against an ESOL classmate Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, in a bottle flip competition as the class plays the game "Minute to Win It" in the school's media center. - photo by Scott Rogers

In her language arts classes, George will translate novels and short stories into Spanish, then allow her ESOL students to listen to their peers’ book discussions in English.

Sarah Lux, lead ESOL teacher at McEver Arts Academy, is on her sixth year in the program. 

She said kindergarteners have the easiest time learning a second language because their brains are “little sponges.”

The older students coming in without much exposure to English often receive academic assistance from their peers.
“A lot of students are so eager to help each other,” Lux said. “They’re always willing to help translate. It can be a little bit of a challenge sometimes, but it’s a challenge we all love.”

Mandi O’Mara, Tadmore Elementary School’s lead ESOL teacher, serves around 80 English learners a year. O’Mara co-teaches in classrooms at her school, providing assistance to ESOL students. 

Many ESOL teachers in other Hall schools simply incorporate their strategies into a regular class full of both English learners and those not in the program.

She said one of the biggest challenges she experiences is the feeling of not being able to give students what they need. 

“You see that want and that learning ability, but sometimes I feel like I don’t have enough time with them,” she said. “I see a class for 50 minutes a day. I do enjoy helping teachers understand as I go into their classrooms, so they can help the ESOL kids when I’m not there.”

George said 90% of her ESOL students strive to make it through the program.

“They just try so hard and they genuinely want to learn,” she said. “Be patient and sensitive because some of them come to us never being in a school before or exposed to English.”

Cultural connections

Many of the ESOL students arrive in Hall County from Honduras and Mexico, sometimes not knowing any English.

“It opened my eyes to a lot of the cultural differences,” George said of her experience teaching ESOL. “I grew up in Gainesville my whole life, and it just allowed me to see things better from their perspective.”

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East Hall Middle School 8th grader Yair Vargas attempts to pick up as many tiny nuts as he can with a wooden skewer during on one minute during an ESOL class Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. The class took a break from their normal studies to play the game "Minute to Win It" in the school's media center. - photo by Scott Rogers

She said the most noticeable difference in her perspective involves home and work life balance.

“What I didn’t know before is that a lot of students are responsible to be caregivers for younger siblings or cousins while their parents are at work,” she said. “That explains why they’re tired in class or don’t finish homework. A lot also don’t have internet. You have to understand how that limits what they can do.”

By meeting the ESOL students on their level, she’s able to help them blossom. Last year she taught a seventh grader who immigrated from Mexico knowing zero English. 

“In one year I got him up to almost sixth grade reading,” George said. “In the middle school level it’s hard. I love seeing their growth no matter how big or small it is.”

Knowing all of the ESOL strategies has helped teachers build relationships with not only the students but their families. 

“They trust you and respect you, and come back to see you,” Lux said. “I love the population, and I think it has helped me become a better teacher for my students.”

O’Mara said she wants the community to know that the ESOL students are “just your everyday kids.”

“They’re kids that just have a different language, which is a different set of skills,” she said. “We’re not sheltering them by removing them from a classroom. We’re including them all the time with their peers. They’re socially, emotionally and academically in that normal school environment.”

George believes that teaching is about building relationships. If a teacher can’t understand a student’s background, she said it hurts the kid’s educational experience.  

“I love when they finally understand that they get something in English and Spanish,” George said. “Here (at East Hall) a majority have a Hispanic background. I love the culture. It’s so giving, hospitable, hard working and appreciative.”