Welcoming English Language Learners: An American tradition

Photo: Monroe fifth graders feel at home with school principal Scott Allen

by Sabrina Holcomb

Busy Monroe Elementary School principal Scott Allen had mixed emotions when he heard he had a surprise visitor in the middle of a hectic school day. “You never know what’s coming through the door,” explains Allen, who had no idea the impromptu visit would be so eye-opening, he would “never look at his students the same way again.”

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World War II survivor and former Monroe “ELL” student Illse Gross had dropped by the school to say thank you—64 years after attending classes there. Gross, who had emigrated with her family from Germany, spoke no English when she started school at Monroe.

Gross told Allen and Monroe educators about an odyssey that began when her family was imprisoned by the Nazis after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. Drafted into the German army, Illse’s father ended up in a Russian concentration camp. His family had no idea he was alive until he showed up on their doorstep and persuaded his family to move to America.

When the Gross family settled in Enid, Oklahoma, Monroe Elementary became the bridge between two worlds for young Illse and her brother. Gross never forgot the teachers who taught her English and “changed her life.” Through tears, Illse Gross thanked Allen and Monroe’s educators for their service to her and today’s English Language Learners.

Illse Gross young girl
Illse Gross (right) and her brother Eric (left) were featured in the local newspaper soon after arriving in Oklahoma in 1952.

“It really drove home to me that teaching kids who come here from other countries is nothing new—we’ve done this a long time,” observed Allen, who presides over a school where close to half of the student body is made up of Hispanic and Marshallese children and 30 percent of the students classify as English Language Learners.

The situation is made even more challenging by the recent increase in students who, like young Illse and her brother, speak virtually no English.

Monroe Elementary is the poster school for a growing trend in the nation’s public schools. English Language Learners are the nation’s fastest-growing student group, yet the amount of federal and state dollars spent per ELL student is in decline, even as the number of ELL students has skyrocketed.

It doesn’t help that Oklahoma schools are reeling from a new round of budget cuts, and Title III federal funds slated for ELL instruction are not nearly enough to provide schools with all the resources they need.

Allen acknowledges that schools charged with educating non-English speaking students can sometimes look at ELL students as a problem, because it can be overwhelming to reach them.

“But they are not a problem,” says Allen. “They don’t need to be fixed or cured. Their language is not a problem. However, their language is their life’s cultural road map that shows us where they have been and where they are going.”

This positive attitude is reflected in Monroe’s “whole school” approach to the education of ELL students. “There’s very much a mindset that we’re all working together,” says NEA member Sherri Hendrie, an instructional coach for Monroe and other schools in the district.

Illse Gross today
Illse Gross and Scott Allen

Every classroom at Monroe, including physical education and music, has a word wall with pictures to help ELL students visually orient themselves. The school also has incorporated music and dance with video into the morning assembly. “It’s really neat for the kids because it transcends language and it’s a cohesive approach for the entire student body,” says Hendrie.

Allen and Hendrie also credit NEA’s districtwide professional development courses on ELL advocacy and cultural awareness with helping the staff meet the challenge of educating such a large population of ELL students.

“I’ve seen a more collaborative climate this year filled with engaging academic conversations,” notes Hendrie. “Teachers’ jobs have become more navigable, and there’s been an incredible increase in students’ assessment scores.”

Happy with the gains his students have made, Allen nevertheless cautions schools not to get so wrapped up in testing and assessments, they miss the life-altering impact educators have on students’ lives.

“Meeting Illse Gross was a reminder that the nation’s classrooms really are a gateway to the American Dream,” says Allen. “Sixty years ago, a lady’s life was changed and she came back and shared what American education had done for her. I want to encourage educators and citizens to welcome today’s ELL students with the same open hearts America welcomed Illse and her family.”

Reader Comments

  1. I hope you find this story inspiring! Illse’s visit changed the way I look at things. It ignited a passion for ELLs that I didn’t have before, and I will fight for every single one of them!

  2. I am currently the ELL coach/teacher at Crescent City High School, Crescent City, Florida. 56% of our High School is Hispanic. I also teach AP Spanish and Spanish for Spanishspeakers. Because of funding cuts from the state and federals, any student that has been ELL for over six years is cut from the program. There are no ELL classes, just a bilingual dictionary and maybe a peer student that sort of speaks English. There are only three of us that speak Spanish on campus. The rest are monolingual. These students are the future and they are largely invisible. What are we doing? Dr. D.L.Whitman, “Profe”

  3. I am so excited for the next school year! After 14 years as a Spanish teacher and Spanish Heritage Language teacher, I will be teaching newcomers English, technology skills, and helping them assimilate to American culture in San Mateo, CA. As a student who grew up in Oklahoma City and attended public schools there, I befriended many students who came from other countries- Vietnam, Laos, Mexico, China, Brazil, Iran, and Germany. Getting to know these students offered me a broad array of international perspectives and ideas. I loved it and made me who I am today. I am sad to hear of all the budget cuts to public education in Oklahoma, supported by a resurgence of jingoism and racism against poor, minority and refugee students. I am happy to hear that there is a group of teachers taking on the government by running for political offices in the state.

  4. I often remind students, and anyone else who will listen, that this isn’t new. My mother and my grandmother were both born in the US, but grew up in a then-insular Greek community. Neither spoke English until they started kindergarten. It was particularly powerful the years that I was teaching in the same school where they learned.

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