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Speaking their language: High school senior Lourdes Anderson connects with Perham’s growing population of Spanish-speaking youth

Perham High School senior Lourdes Anderson, center, with some of the fourth grade Heart of the Lakes Elementary School students she works with as part of a new English language learning program. Students pictured are, from right, seated: Dulce Chavez, Ashley Tobon, Roxana Belem Macias Palacios and Angely Guzman. Standing in back is Yonnel Ramirez Fuentes. Marie Johnson/FOCUS1 / 2
Lourdes Anderson, third from left, with her parents, Paul and Kimberly, and siblings, left to right: Clayton, Maren, Kjirsten, Bjorn and Lauren, in 2014. Born in Nicaragua, Lourdes was adopted by the Andersons at the age of 12 and spoke no English when she arrived in Perham. Focus file photo2 / 2

Lourdes Anderson remembers what it was like to come to a new country and not speak the language.

Born in Nicaragua, Central America, where Spanish is the main language, she was adopted by her Perham family and moved over here at the age of 12. She spoke no English whatsoever.

It was a difficult time, the Perham High School senior recalls now. It was hard to make friends, participate in classes and just generally relate to the people of her new home country. It shook her confidence.

“I was in sixth grade when I came here,” she says. “It wasn’t easy. I remember getting really impatient with trying to speak the language.”

She remembers one of those early days at school, for example, when she was asked to answer a question out loud in front of her classmates. She didn’t know much English yet and so she said the only words she could think of: “I hate pickles.”

She laughs about it now, but it was embarrassing at the time.

Lourdes turned out to be a pretty quick study. Within about six months, she could read and speak basic English. Over time she continued to learn new words, new pronunciations, and new language concepts. Thanks to “a lot of support and a lot of help” from her adoptive family, including parents Paul and Kimberly Anderson, as well as Perham-Dent teachers -- especially instructors with the district’s English as a Second Language program -- Lourdes chipped away at the language barrier, piece by piece, until there was no barrier left for her.

Looking back on it, Lourdes says she’s grateful for the journey she's had, and to everyone who's helped her out along the way.

"I didn't have the best childhood," she says. "I didn't come from a very rich country... I had some issues and challenges and obstacles I had to overcome. But it made me stronger -- much more confident and less fragile."

Today, Lourdes is a self-assured, articulate, college-bound teenager; a good student and longtime cross country and track runner, former speech competitor, choir member and two-time Outstanding Teen in the local pageant circuit (once in Perham and once in Detroit Lakes). Not only does she have no problem speaking English, but she has the added talent of speaking it in front of large audiences.

Clearly, she’s come a long way since “I hate pickles.”

'She makes me feel confident'

Wanting to give back and help other Spanish-speaking kids the way she was helped in her youth, Lourdes approached school leaders with an idea. She knew the school district’s Spanish-speaking student population was growing, and she felt like her fluent Spanish skills could be of use to kids struggling with English.

Before the start of her senior year this year, she met with high school principal Ehren Zimmerman to propose her idea, and before long, a new English Language Learning Immersion/Student Interpreting Program (or ELL program, for short) was born.

The program pairs Lourdes with Spanish-speaking students at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School for one-on-one English language learning sessions. She also acts as an interpreter for the kids, when needed.

“Lourdes’ personality helped excel this,” says Zimmerman of the ELL program. “She jumped in head-first. There was some guidance from administrators, but she’s the one who drove this. She’s a pretty dynamic young lady.”

School leaders consider the program a win-win-win for all involved: It provides a leadership opportunity and academic credit for Lourdes through the high school’s Apprenticeship Program; it provides the elementary school with some much-appreciated educational support, and; it provides young students with a relatable tutor and mentor.

“I just think it’s a really wonderful thing for both our students and Lourdes,” says elementary school principal Jen Hendrickson. “I think it's a really neat connection that she has with the kids because of her story and her situation. Being able to relate with them, having been in their shoes, and for her to be able to kind of give back, is so cool. And for those kids to have a role model and someone to look up to… those are things you really can't measure in terms of how deep of an impact she's making with these kids."

Lourdes visits the elementary school for about an hour each day, working with kids outside of their regular classrooms. Depending on the skill level of each student, she might help with the beginning basics of English, such as the alphabet, or she might fine-tune a more advanced student’s reading abilities. The goals are to provide the kids with the extra support they need to be comfortable and confident at school, and to get them caught up with their native-English-speaking peers.

The students say it's working. In an interview with her fourth graders on Monday, they all said they’re learning things from Lourdes and enjoy working with her. Dulce Chavez says, "She helps us a lot. When I'm around Lourdes, she makes me feel confident."

Lourdes is passionate about the ELL program and doesn't take her responsibilities lightly. At the same time, she likes to have fun with it; to talk to her students and really get to know them

"These guys speak Spanish, so we have that connection," she says. “I know what it’s like to not be able to understand the language. I can really put myself in their shoes.”

"It's been really fun and I really enjoy it," she adds. "It's made my days and my school year better."

While the district has long had an English as a Second Language (ESL) program, which provides similar English language support services to students, the ELL program is unique in that it fosters mentor-type relationships between older and younger students.  

“The program just kind of fell into our laps this year, and it was pretty awesome,” says Dana Motschenbacher, Perham-Dent’s ESL teacher. “It’s great to have Lourdes come to Heart of the Lakes for an hour every day to read with kids, help with homework, do vocabulary activities, etc… All the kids just love working with her.”

Motschenbacher and a team of other elementary school and ESL program instructors, administrators and volunteers regularly meet with Lourdes to manage the ELL program and evaluate its progress and impact.  

The program was recently recognized at the state level for all its positives, winning a 2016-2017 Star of Innovation Award from the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals.

Zimmerman says he hopes other Spanish-speaking high school students will take part in the program after Lourdes graduates, so it can continue into the future.

"This program has been really good," Lourdes says. "It's amazing the things that it does for kids. They appreciate it. I can see it in their eyes. They're happy that they have people and teachers there to support them... I'm sure the parents also appreciate it. And it's changed my education, in a good way, leading me on a different path that I didn't know I could take. It's been very rewarding.”

Lourdes Anderson, being crowned Miss Perham's Outstanding Teen in 2013. Focus file photo

RELATED STORY: 'A school of color': Perham-Dent 'embracing' its growing ESL population

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.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

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