Staff helps Spanish-speaking students fit in

English learner teacher Carmen Brooks, left, works with students at Rantoul Township High School. Brooks is among the staff who helps Spanish-speaking students become more proficient in their studies.

RANTOUL — “Like most of these kids, all they want is to succeed and have a job and a career. They’re like everybody else except they have English as a second language. This class helps them out a lot. I can’t even explain how much it helps them.”

That’s the word from Ashley Garcia, a teacher aide at Rantoul Township High School, speaking of the Hispanic students in the school.

Garcia sees things from both sides. She has children in school,  and she is tasked with helping RTHS students to achieve academically.

Carmen Brooks, who is in her second year as an EL (English learner) teacher at RTHS, said about 130 Spanish-speaking students are enrolled at the school. Not being able to speak English presents a roadblock to these students. Brooks and others are there to help.

“Instead of being in regular sophomore or freshman English class, they’re with me. It’s basically vocabulary and grammar,” Brooks said.

In addition to the EL classes, resource classes are available to those students who might have learned English but need some help now and then.

“It’s more they need more time to get assignments and tests done and can get a translation if needed,” Brooks said of the resource offerings.

Influx of Guatemalan students

Nancy Reyes, a bilingual teacher aide at RTHS, said more Guatemalan immigrants are coming to Rantoul.

Almost all of them had only a sixth-grade education, and Reyes couldn’t figure out why. Then she made a discovery.

“I just found out like two weeks ago,” Reyes said. “We were asking for records. I said, ‘I have a curiosity. Why do all the Guatemalan kids only go to sixth grade?’”

She learned the Guatemalan government will not pay to educate children past the sixth-grade level, and most people can’t afford to pay for education.

Many children who come to the United States have been out of school for several years.

“Some of them, they would be old enough to be considered a junior or senior, but they have to start as a freshman because they don’t have the credits,” Brooks said.

But late-comers don’t always make it through graduation. They’re too old. They “age out” as Reyes put it, because of a law that restricts anyone older than 21 being a high school student.

Reyes said she enrolled three such students who aged-out the December before they graduated.

It isn’t just vocabulary and English that they have to learn.

“They also have to learn the math and even reading. They’re behind,” Brooks said.

Added Reyes: “I ask them, ‘Have you taken algebra; have you taken biology before?’ Most don’t remember because it was sixth grade, so they probably didn’t.”

Brooks said MAP testing is available to determine where students are in math and reading. Those who are below a determined score are placed in a lab class.

Making things even more difficult in learning English is that some students also haven’t developed their reading skills in Spanish.

Still, things are better for Spanish-speaking students at RTHS in recent years.

Brooks said teachers did the best they could to help. More and more teachers are asking for help from Brooks and Reyes translating papers, tests and quizzes.

A native of Ohio, Brooks taught for three years in Indianapolis before coming to RTHS last year. While in high school, she volunteered to help in day care at a school where free EL classes were given to adults.

“I was still working on my Spanish. It was kind of fun to work with kids because they will teach you without judging you. I wanted to learn Spanish, too, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot more Spanish in this job,” Brooks said.

There is a shortage of EL teachers.

Reyes, formerly from Texas, where she worked as a substitute teacher, came to visit in Rantoul and decided she would like to move here.

She worked for 11 years at Little Wings Childcare and Learning Center translating and filling out application forms for parents as well as other duties with the children. She then worked for three years at Pleasant Acres Elementary as a Spanish interventionist.

“I wanted more to work with parents, help them feel more comfortable because it’s always hard,” Reyes said. “I love translating and talking to adults, so I applied here and got the job.

Her duties include doing orientations and keeping in touch with parents. She is to the point where “they feel pretty comfortable with me.”

Before that, many Spanish-speaking parents didn’t feel like they had a place to turn for help with their children.

“I feel they’re a lot more willing to call school or come to the school if they know somebody” is there to help them, Brooks said.

“I don’t think there was as much parent participation (before). If they were to come here and no one could tell what is happening. ... I feel there are more Spanish-speaking parents who come to things.”

Brooks said in addition to native Guatemalans, there are several students at RTHS from Puerto Rico who moved here in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

There are also students from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Mexico.

“More and more are coming because they know people here now,” Brooks said.

Reyes said the parents like it in Rantoul.

“They feel comfortable now,” she said. “They’re glad what their kids are getting.”

She said she explains to the parents from Guatemala that their children will age out because they enrolled later than most students, “which means they won’t get their high school diploma, and they’re totally OK. They want them to get as much education as possible.”

Resources are available elsewhere. An adult school is available in Urbana.

Brooks said seeing the students progress — learning and making new friends — is rewarding. It’s easy to get attached to them, she said.

It’s easy for students to feel isolated if they are in classes without any other Spanish-speaking students, Reyes said, adding that she was called to the counselor’s office many times for translating help for students who wanted to change classes just for that reason.

“There was nobody there to help them,” Reyes said. “They depend a lot on other kids who speak those languages.”

More and more, Spanish-speaking students are being accepted at RTHS. Brooks said most tend to stay in their own groups, but some are branching out to make new friends — especially if they are in sports or other extracurricular activities.

Garcia, who is one of two parent-aides at RTHS, has a stepson who attends the school. She said the services for Spanish-speaking students are valuable. She said her stepson picked up English “very fast.”

“I think it’s very beneficial for them to have this service because many get here and don’t know any English at all,” she said. “Not being able to understand what’s going on, they always have to wait for someone to translate for them.”

Brooks said some of the students — especially those attending the resource classes — don’t have a problem holding a conversation in English, but it takes them more time when it comes to reading and writing skills.

The number of Hispanic students enrolled at Rantoul Township High School has grown in recent years.

Principal Todd Wilson said Hispanic students comprised 17 percent of the student population last school year.

“Our EL (English learner) population  is at 11 percent,” Wilson said. “I would say we have seen this growth in the last six years or so.”  

Wilson said the RTHS faculty is learning and implementing new ways to work with EL students.

“We offer support classes to the students so they have more time with the material they are presented in the classroom,” Wilson said. “For some of our students,  that is all they need.  

“We have teachers working with our EL staff to get classwork translated into Spanish for the students to have available in the classroom. Some of our students need additional resources, so we have them in language acquisition courses so they can learn English.”

Wilson said the bilingual instructional aides are going into the general education classrooms to assist students and teachers.  

“I don’t think we see these as problems, but more of challenges to overcome,” Wilson said.

Spanish is the only foreign language spoken by RTHS students in the EL program. However, because the students are from many different countries, the dialects are different, he said.

— Dave Hinton