Published: Jan 04, 2012 02:00 AM
Modified: Jan 03, 2012 07:25 PM
CHAPEL HILL - A little before 9:15 a.m., Norja Banks, an English as a Second Language teacher, totes her black bag filled with books, small whiteboards and markers through the hallway to the day's first class.
Her first-grade ESL students gather around the table at the edge of the classroom; eyes wide with excitement and minds eager to learn. Banks' students include Guatemalan, Mexican and ethnic Karen children from Myanmar. Most still speak their native language at home.
Frank Porter Graham Elementary School has more than 40 nationalities represented in the school and faces language challenges daily. "When they come they don't speak any (English) at all and neither do their parents," said Rita Bongarten, the school's principal.
FPG's struggle to improve students' literacy is evident on the state's annual ABCs of Public Education. ABC testing measures a school's progress on closing achievement gaps between student subgroups and the goal of all students reaching 100 percent proficiency by 2013-14 in accordance with federal No-Child-Left-Behind mandates.
In 2009, Frank Porter Graham's third-grade limited English proficient subgroup scored 53.8 percent proficient in reading on the ABC test. The same students scored 44.4 percent in fourth grade in 2010 and 50 percent in fifth grade in 2011.
The North Carolina target reading goal for the 2010-11 school year was 71.6 percent for grades 3 through 8.The tests challenge schools that have more ESL students because they are often in more than one subgroup and struggle to score well on the test, which is given in English. If even one subgroup fails to meet the assigned progress for that year, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, the entire school fails.
FPG is one of four Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools with many students who are Spanish-speaking and who also qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, said school board member Jamezetta Bedford. The others are Carrboro Elementary, Ephesus Elementary and McDougle Middle School.
Many families immigrating to North Carolina in recent years have chosen Chapel Hill because it has a history of accepting oppressed populations, said Karen Aldridge, family specialist at FPG. Many families have settled into the school's attendance zone because it contains the lowest-priced apartments apart from public housing, she said."I just think that our school is very welcoming to diverse populations," Aldridge said. "It's one of the things that make us special, and our staff has really embraced our second-language students and their families."
By focusing on literacy and constantly adapting teaching strategies, Bongarten thinks FPG can improve its test scores and reach AYP.ESL teachers Banks and Susan Azzu work with students using easier books to convey the same concepts learned at that grade level.
The school also hires interpreters for school meetings, translates many of the signs around the school into at least three languages and translates phone alerts into parents' native languages.Even with one of every five students speaking English as a second language, FPG has begun to increase the overall percentage of students at or above their grade levels on the test.
In the 2007-08 school year, 70.5 percent of FPG students were proficient or better. Today the school is at 82.7 percent and has received the state ABCs rank of a School of Distinction. A School of Distinction has 80-89 percent of its students at or above grade level.
Still, FPG has a lot of work to do to meet 100 percent proficiency in the 2013-14 school year. According to Bongarten, it takes about seven years for students to become bilingual. If FPG does not make AYP next year it will be required to restructure, she said.
Parents recognize the challenges, but see the diversity at the school as an opportunity for their children to embrace and learn about other cultures."I know on some level it presents a challenge to our staff ... but I think that sort of world community - we have it," said Tiki Gwynne, a member of the School Improvement Team and parent of two girls at the school: second-grader Taylor and fourth-grader Becca.Banks' last class is a group of kindergarteners who start school speaking only their native language. The lesson for the day covers basic English, such as the days of the week, what month it is and the different seasons.
But most of the ESL students at FPG must learn in class from their native English-speaking peers, with help from Banks and Azzu. "I think this hard work will pay off and I think that the kids are celebrated every day and the teachers are celebrated and no matter what, we are going to grow," Bongarten said. "That I know for sure."