Schools seek new ways to reach English learners

My dad, who grew up in southern Minnesota speaking the German of his ancestors, used to tell a tale from his early one-room-school teaching days in the 1930s.

One of his students, a young cousin who knew him well from many German-language-only family gatherings, approached him speaking the language of their homes. My father, either out of a sense of fairness to other students or with some larger societal goal in mind, refused to respond. “In school, we speak English,” he told his cousin.

I have the feeling that admonishment was about as far as English-language-learner programs went in those days.

Today, Minnesota’s English learners program is an industry with some 65,000 students learning English as they attend the state’s schools. But, as MPR News reporter Tim Post points out, as a group those students still tend to lag behind others in overall academic performance.

“We have to do better than we’re doing,” Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard told Post. This week, Willmar teachers are sitting down to figure out how they might tackle that challenge.

Post’s story is part of a project, “Teaching the World in Minnesota,” that MPR News generated in conjunction with students from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Here’s the students in-depth look at the situation, and you can meet and hear several dozen of Minnesota’s English language learners in their own languages.

As was clear from the reporting we did last week in our “Making Connections” project, language is the first barrier preventing whites and Latinos from forging ties that can let them take up community challenges together. The same is true for Somalis, Arabs, Karen and others, and, while the largest number of students in need are in the Twin Cities, a lot of the fast growth is in rural areas.

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