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Learning Our Language: ELL Students in Des Moines Are Succeeding

DES MOINES, Iowa -- As Intensive English Language Program teacher Jillea Bueso leads a classroom full of diverse kids at Meredith Middle School in Des Moines, it certainly looks like a room full of joyful students. How most arrived though is tragically similar.

"There were some difficult times in my country, so we had to move to the United States and start a new life," said eighth grade student Gilmer Mejia, whose family fled El Salvador. His best friend, Carlos Reyes knows the feeling.  Carlos is from Honduras, where he had to fear for his life at times.  “In Honduras you cannot go out by yourself or to the store because they could kill you.”

Refugees and immigrants who first come to Des Moines as a middle school aged student are entered into the six to eight week Intensive English Language Program at Meredith. "It’s a place where they can learn a lot of the basics of coming to school,” said Jillea.

Gilmer and Carlos completed the class in 2014 and remember the difficulty the "basics" presented.  "It was hard because when we went to the store, I couldn’t answer anything. I got nervous and would run and hide any time someone started talking to me,” said Gilmer.  New surroundings and a new language became intimidating. Jillea said she understands their frustration, "English, it takes 6-7 years to become fluent in reading, writing speaking and listening the language."

Simple situations, once second nature, now challenging.  "It’s kind of a little thing, but in our world it's a huge step for them to go from nothing to compose a sentence," said Jillea.

Educators ease students into it.  "The first couple of days are really quiet in my room," said Jillea.  "Nobody is saying anything and it’s not because they are the best students, it’s just they don’t know how to say anything to each other."

Teenagers, learning the English alphabet for the first time.  Gilmer said, "Like A,B,C,D and we started communicating the simple stuff.  That’s how we start." Carlos added, “I learned a lot of things, like how to communicate with people."

With more than 100 different languages spoken in households that make up the Des Moines Public Schools district the teachers have a lot of learning of their own. Jillea said, "When they first come, if we know that their culture is where they’ve only been used to all girls together or all boys together, then we make sure we seat them near the same gender students. Then we ease them into working with others."  Cultural norms, like eye contact must be addressed.  "We try to teach, I know it may seem disrespectful but in the United States it’s going to seem disrespectful if you don’t look at a teacher.  A teacher could get upset with you," said Jillea.

Even passing papers can cause a disturbance.  Jillea said, "Passing things out with your right hand and not just your left hand. In some cultures the left hand is like a dirty hand."

Still, the teachers press on and so do the students.  Gilmer said, "It was important because I was able to communicate everywhere since that’s the language they are speaking.”  It’s that passion that fuels another English Language Learning teacher at Meredith Marlou Sayor. "Their willingness to learn. Their desire to learn. Their cultural backgrounds just give me energy."  Marlou often uses a universal language, music.  It's an after school group that tunes in and strings together words and phrases through song.  "My mission is to get to know those cultures and then to let our regular staff know it too because it’s the not knowing that keeps us from connecting with students."

While the students come from all parts of the globe, there becomes a comfort among them, all working towards the same goal.  Gilmer said, "No one could speak English so we were all starting a new language and no one was perfect yet."  A bond of diversity is formed.  "We started talking about their countries, their cultures, what they do. It was good to learn and they taught me a lot about their cultures," said Gilmer.

Jillea said hallways are lined with greetings from around the globe to assure students don’t feel alone.  "Just by saying hello in a different language can change how a person feels. If they feel welcomed or not welcomed in the school."

There are over 6,100 English Language Learning students just within the Des Moines Public Schools district. That means there are more ELL students in the City of Des Moines than there are in the states of Vermont, West Virginia, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Maine.  If Des Moines created it’s own school district just for ELL students, it would become the 14th largest district in the state.  Just below the total population enrolled within the school districts of Johnston (6,894) and Southeast Polk (6,797).  "Refugee families, the immigrant families, they came for their children and if their children can’t learn English, they know that they aren’t going to be as successful as they could be. So it is vital that these classes get funded," said Jillea.

It’s a program that quickly changed the way Gilmer’s family is experiencing America.  "If they want to find something or return something or buy something they couldn’t find, I talk to someone that works at the store and help them find it.”  Those experiences don’t come easy, says Jillea, "They work really hard and we see it by the end of the day.  A lot of them are really tired and they get headaches and things like that."

The pain and struggles lead to success.  "Since I learned English, I feel like it’s my normal language," said Gilmer.

Accomplishments that could carry over into achievements that many of these refugee and immigrant families brought their children to Des Moines for in the first place. "You can’t get more real world than walking into a school like this and hearing different languages and trying to get along with people that are so diverse. I feel like if you can be successful in a school like this, then you can be successful anywhere. There is no stopping anyone that can be successful in a school like ours.”

Carlos and Gilmer agree with many of their peers, that the power of learning the language in Des Moines public schools has been priceless.  Carlos said, "Now I feel safe to go to the store and to my friend’s to visit him.” Gilmer added, "I am able to talk to anyone that speaks English."

The most recent data from the school district's website shows that in 2014 nearly 84% of all ELL high school students are graduating. That's three percent higher than the average graduation rate for the entire district in 2014.