'A school of color'
Perham-Dent School District administrators say there are more nonnative speakers of English in the district today than ever before. The district currently has 51 students enrolled in its ESL program (English as a Second Language), a number that has grown substantially in recent years, according to high school principal Ehren Zimmerman. Three years ago, there were about 30 students in the program. The makeup of those students is also changing. It used to be that most of Perham's ESL students were at the high school, Zimmerman says. Now, about half are at the elementary school. And it's become more common for ESL students to start school with very limited or no English language skills.
"It's changed quite a bit in the last few years," he says. "Overall numbers have jumped up, and we're seeing more of a lack of English knowledge and ability."
Dana Motschenbacher, who was hired as the district's ESL teacher in 2015, has noticed the program's growth since she's been hired. At Heart of the Lakes Elementary School alone, she says, the numbers have jumped from "the low 20s" last year to 31 kids this year.
"Our ESL program continues to grow each year," confirms elementary school principal Jen Hendrickson. "We have students coming to us at all levels of English." Administrators attribute the growth to a change in the Perham community's demographics as a whole, mainly due to abundant job opportunities, especially in manufacturing. New families keep moving to town for work, they say, and once a few members of a family have relocated here, more will often follow, nurturing that pattern of growth. "Our ethnic populations are growing in Perham—outside of Germans, Norwegians and Finlanders," Zimmerman says with a slight chuckle. "The district is embracing that. Now, we talk about us as a 'school of color.' We're growing our educational platform to support everybody."
The district has an integration program that ties in with its ESL program, and Zimmerman says there's also a Native American program, which has almost as many students as the ESL program.
While the vast majority of Perham's ESL students speak Spanish, other languages, such as Chinese and Liberian English, are also in the current mix. Program leaders have to be prepared to handle speakers of any and every possible foreign language.
Motschenbacher has implemented a number of measures to ensure that ESL students are able to communicate as best as possible with their teachers as they perfect their English. She shows teachers how to use Google Translate, for example, and she encourages all the elementary school teachers to label everything in their classrooms with both Spanish and English words as well as pictures or illustrations. To help teachers communicate with the students' parents, who usually don't speak much English, she signed the schools up for a telephone translation service last year—something that's come in handy for things like parent/teacher conferences. She also makes sure the students have bilingual books to read, and reference books with pictures in them.
Motschenbacher works with ESL students at the elementary, middle and high schools, at all grade levels, on every subject from English to math. The program's aim is to help students feel more comfortable at school, gain confidence in their academic abilities, and eventually improve their English language skills to the point where they can test out of the ESL program altogether.