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How Ohio schools are adapting to serve more English learners

Marcela Funes, 3, wears an earpiece allowing her to listen to an interpreter during a presentation at Akron’s Findley Community Learning Center on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. To the right, Marcela's mother, Sheila Soto, holds her infant nephew Ian Hernandez. Sitting to the left are Sheila's son Yago Soto, 5, and the son a of family friend, Erick Hernandez, 10.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Marcela Funes, 3, wears an earpiece allowing her to listen to an interpreter during a presentation at Akron’s Findley Community Learning Center on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. Marcela's mother, Sheila Soto, (right) who primarily speaks Spanish, attends the presentation while holding her infant nephew Ian Hernandez. Sitting to the left are Sheila's son Yago Soto, 5, and the son a of family friend, Erick Hernandez, 10.

The lunchroom at Akron’s Findley Community Learning Center is filled with the sound of different languages being spoken: Spanish, Swahili, Nepalese.

A local nonprofit is giving a presentation, in English, to dozens of Akron Public Schools parents on how immigrants can get their GED in English. All the while, seven interpreters are translating the presentation for them via headsets and earpieces The parents come from a wide range of countries, like Guatemala, Afghanistan and Thailand.

The interpreters are part of a larger pool of 32 for the school district. The number of translators has doubled in the last decade, as the school district — like many across the state — has seen a significant increase in the number of immigrant students it's serving.

School districts across Ohio are increasingly seeing the need to increase staffing, while putting other programming in place, to help support the growing numbers of English learners they serve.

Roughly 10% of Akron's 20,100 students are considered English learners; at Findley, an elementary school on Akron's north side, that percentage quintuples to half the student population.

Those families face many challenges, from transportation to finding a job, but chief among them is the language barrier. Saleh, a father of four who came from Congo a year ago, had multiple questions for Findley's school nurse, who also gave a presentation during the meeting. Roselyne Lewis is an interpreter who came from Kenya a few years ago. She shared one experience Saleh had recently that troubled him.

"One of his children was really sick, to the point they called in the 911," she said. "And I think they came and assessed him and felt like he was not in dire danger of anything. But because of the communication barrier, it just looked like, ‘You just came and looked at him and went and left, what am I supposed to do now?’”

Ebtisam Alnemer, another of Akron's interpreters, came from Syria 10 years ago. She said it’s a vital role, assisting in the classroom, translating phone messages from principals to families and checking in with students and parents.

"We are the bridge between the school and the family," she said. "So yeah, for the kids they learn English fast, but for parents it takes them some time."

Loi Dang-Nguyen, Akron's ESL and world languages learning specialist, came to Akron decades ago from Vietnam. As she helped assemble the district’s team of interpreters and specialists, she looked for people who were immigrants themselves. She has a photo of her family on the cover of the Akron Beacon Journal in her office, when they were one of the first Vietnamese families to arrive in Akron as refugees in 1975.

"Being a refugee myself, I always [think] ‘What would my parents need?’ as I plan out what the supports are," she said.

Those supports, in addition to the interpreters, include translating mass amounts of documents — ranging from subjects like graduation requirements to bussing — paired with videos in those languages. Some teachers are bilingual; there are tutors who work specifically with English learners; and the district even has "technology specialists" who speak some of Akron's in-demand languages and help parents and kids with technology.

"We want our kids to be able to see people like them in many different roles in the district," she said.

But with 53 languages spoken among students, it’s not easy to accommodate everyone’s needs, Dang-Nguyen said, so they sometimes contract out with an external company to cover languages the interpreters can't cover. It can also be challenging to hire enough teachers with certification to teach English language learners.

Cincinnati's supports

On the other side of the state, Cincinnati Public Schools are experiencing the same challenges.

77 different languages are spoken there. Since the start of this school year alone, the district has identified more than 400 new English learners.

To help, it’s hosted family literacy nights with ESL coordinators to better communicate with parents, and it started sending young English learners home with ‘Just Right Readers’ to help them sound out new English words.

But Adam Cooper, the district’s ESOL coordinator, says it takes more than translation and language services to serve this population.

That’s why he worked with school counselors to kick off an entrepreneurship mentoring program to connect English learners with local business owners, after noticing some older multicultural students were checking out of school.

Many didn’t see a traditional path forward in college or the military, Cooper said.

A man sits with his hands folded across from a student wearing a gray shirt.
Cincinnati Public Schools
A mentor directs students during a workshop as part of Cincinnati Public School's Entrepreneurship Mentoring program.

“We have a lot of students that saw something that might be a slightly different version of that,” he said, “where they may work for their family businesses, they may want to start their own business.”

On the day of the program, groups of high schoolers crowd around tables of successful entrepreneurs, who help them brainstorm future business endeavors.

“Now do you want to sell to men or women?” one of the entrepreneurs asks the group of students.

Lorena Cinto is among them. She moved to Cincinnati from Guatemala a couple years ago and said it’s been really hard to focus on school work since the move.

“Right now in my current situation, I have to work and go to school at the same time and there's a lot of pressure,” she said through a translator. “So I feel like it makes it difficult for me to concentrate on learning English specifically in school.”

Cinto is now a senior in high school, about to graduate and not sure what comes next.

“I can't imagine a future in which I physically have to work eight to 10 hours a day because it's just too hard,” she said.

But this workshop is giving her some ideas. Maybe she’ll open her own cleaning business, or start a digital marketing company, she said.

Either way, her learning won’t stop when she graduates. She, along with all of these other English learners coming to Ohio’s schools, are just getting started.

“I'm really thankful for this country and its people,” she said. “It's not always easy to accept people who come from another country, but I feel like there's a lot of opportunity here and I'm grateful.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
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