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Demand grows for English as a Second Language programs

Principal Peggy Heinz reads to students at the Buchanan K-1 Center in Huron
Huron School District
Principal Peggy Heinz reads to students at the Buchanan K-1 Center in Huron

South Dakota schools welcome new students each year and some need English instruction. The state Department of Education reports fewer than one-third of those students are academically "on track," and educators say they need more support to properly equip classrooms.

English as a Second Language, or ESL, courses are essential to provide the building blocks for a multilingual child. But those English consonants can be a battle for students who don't grow up in an English-speaking household.

Sabrena Brooks, a kindergarten ESL teacher, said her classes focus on the basics.

“We service children for reading, math, and language," Brooks said. "Language is the biggest part of our day, especially with kindergarten students so we’re trying to help them learn the words they need to be successful in the classroom – basic ABCs, how to write their name. It’s everything to them because we’re their only spot they can really practice it.”

Brooks and fellow educator Lacey Fryberger teach at the Buchanan K-1 Center in the Huron school district. They said that daily practice is essential for a student to learn functional English skills. If the state education system fails students in these classrooms, it can also fail them after graduation.

Everything becomes that much harder in America without functional English skills. Brooks said a good language baseline makes day to day life less challenging.

“So, if we want them to be successful all the way up in their school years, we’re the building ground," Brooks said. "We’re the starting spot. So, we practice every single day.”

The need for robust English language education exists for students across the state. Rapid City Area Schools director of special services Lisa Hafer said each ESL student is a new puzzle.

“Our different programs consist of a newcomer program, which would be a student who has no English language background whatsoever, so they’re learning more about days of the week, crossing the street, medical things," Hafer said. "Then you have middle of the road, students with limited or interrupted formal education. With that they’re doing pretty well with the content but just need a little more crossover. Then we have our higher-level program which is just a consult basis just to work within learning the language and our nuances.”

Rapid City continues to see growth in demand for these services year-over-year as new families put down roots in the area and send their children to school.

“We have about 180, and this year we had 35 new students step into our district so lots of rearranging of schedules," Hafer said. "So, this is a new area for us in Rapid City Area Schools because our numbers have been so low in the past and now, they’re slowly growing.”

While the Rapid City Area Schools’ number of ESL students isn’t overwhelming the districts services, that can change quickly.

Across South Dakota, about five percent of students are designated as English Language Learners, which represents more than 6,700 students. The state Department of Education reports fewer than one-third of those students are academically “on track.”

In Huron, a community of about 15,000, ESL Director Jolene Konechne has learned just how fast ESL services can become essential.

“We have quite a few English as a Second Language families that work at Dakota Provisions, the turkey plant, and Jack Links in Alpina – and they brought children with them," Konechne said. "So, what started out as 100 or 200 kids, we’re now over 1,000 ESL students for a total student body a little under 3,000.”

In the past few years, the district has seen an influx of students who speak Spanish and a variety of southeast Asian languages. Huron now employs 13 dedicated ESL teachers, along with interpreters to help with school business. However, Konechne said additional state funding for paraprofessionals and additional ESL teachers would certainly lighten the load for students and teachers.

A lifelong resident of the area, she said ESL families new to the region, can offer a fresh worldview for the entire community.

“This position has opened my eyes to - what we have is really good, and not everybody lives or has lived that way,” Konechne said.

She said she wants educators to remember ESL students often enter school districts with their own unique life experience.

“I like to ask the question, but I always hesitate to ask the question when I’m registering new families, ‘What brought you to Huron?’ This year I had a mom and her son, and then the interpreter and myself and I asked that question, and mom just started crying," Konechne said. "She said, ‘We weren’t safe.’ Her husband was killed by the militia, and she was shielding her hand from her son and did the cut-throat action.”

Often, these students and families are already tangling with very real trauma from the moment they set foot in America. Seeing the ramifications firsthand stirs something deep in Konechne.

“I’m going to get emotional talking about it," Konechne said. "As a mom – wanting to surround your kid and not know if I send them to school are they going to make it home? I challenge the community and anyone to think about - it’s not the world that I grew up in even anymore, what they’ve experienced. They lived in refugee camps, on the ground, guns, wires. They come here for a better life for their kids, so that’s how we need to look at it.”

As a result of this reality, nearly every ESL educator in South Dakota continues to play different roles, to educate, nurture, and support students every single day they go to work.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture