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ESL classes: A growing need in north country

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POTSDAM - Migrant families who have moved to the north country for farm work are enrolling their children in area schools, creating an increase in the need for English as a second language programs.

Potsdam Central School used to be the only district with an ESL program, according to Potsdam Superintendent Patrick H. Brady. That is no longer the case.

“Historically, we have a low number of students in our 18 districts who have been English language learners, so this has not something that has been a great need,” St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Stephen J. Todd said. “But recently conversations about that particular service have increased.”

Lisbon Central School hired a full-time ESL teacher, Desiree A. Roddy, in 2012.

“Farms here are hiring workers from other countries and their bringing their children,” Mrs. Roddy said. “They found our area and it’s beautiful and the land is cheap.”

Mrs. Roddy said she teaches seven students in kindergarten through 12th grade, five who speak Pennsylvania Dutch and three who speak Spanish. Two of the Spanish-speaking students are from Puerto Rico. She said many families move here from Puerto Rico for higher pay since minimum wage is $3.15 more.

The five students who speak Pennsylvania Dutch are a Gouverneur family who left the Amish community, according to Lisbon Superintendent Erin E. Woods.

Mrs. Roddy said that Lisbon has a contract with Gouverneur Central School that allows for the five students to be transported to Lisbon Central for their ESL program.

Mr. Brady said Potsdam has shared its program with other districts as well, including Lisbon.

“We hired Pota Davis in 2005 as an ESL and speech teacher,” he said. “She was working at the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES at the time and providing services to our school.”

Mr. Brady said they’ve had up to 20 students in the program at once, enough to make it “economically feasible to hire her exclusively for our district.”

Mr. Brady said the growth of ESL students in Potsdam is a result of the colleges in the community.

“We sometimes get professors from other nations that move here to teach and their children go to school here, but English is a second language to them,” he said.

Ms. Woods said a few years ago Lisbon was sending its ESL students to Potsdam.

“But that’s a 45-minute bus trip,” she said.

Eventually, Ms. Woods said, more students in the district needed an ESL program, so they hired Mrs. Roddy.

“We’ve always needed ESL in the north country,” she said. “Even when I was in high school there were students who spoke English as a second language.”

In 2007 New York State passed a law that any school that had even one student that spoke English as a second language was required to provide an ESL program.

Mrs. Roddy said that all students are supposed to be given a home language questionnaire that asks what languages are spoken at home.

After the students hand in the surveys, ones who listed other languages are interviewed by Mrs. Roddy and given a state identification test for English language learners.

The test scores in reading, writing, listening and speaking determine the level of English each student knows.

“I’m here to help these students become successful and bilingual adults so they won’t have to rely on programs like this the rest of their lives,” Mrs. Roddy said.

In Jefferson County, several school districts have a large number of students who speak English as a second language. At Carthage Central school, about 30 out of 3,500 students speak English as a second language.

Indian River, Philadelphia Primary Principal Barbara A. Zehr is the director of ESL studies for the roughly 122 students in the district who have identified their first language as something other than English.

“The majority of our ESL students speak Spanish and have a military background, but we have students from 18 different language backgrounds represented and 24 countries,” said Ms. Zehr.

Ms. Zehr said even if a student has no knowledge of the English language they will be immersed in a classroom to learn through environment.

“They will have an aide with them to interpret what is being said in the classroom but we want them to learn in the classroom,” Ms. Zehr said. “The best thing to do to learn is to immerse them into the language.”

At the end of the year the students take a state English language achievement test to determine whether help outside a classroom will decrease or they will no longer need assistance. Ms. Zehr said of the 19 languages spoken by students aside from Spanish students speak Filipino, Russian, Samoan, Thai, Haitian Creole, Arabic, Chinese, Ashanti, German and Arabic.

“It really adds to our school community to have so many cultures represented here,” Ms. Zehr.

Mr. Todd said that although he does not have the data to support numbers for how many students in the area need an English as a second language program, he’s recently had “informal conversations” with some area superintendents, including Lynn M. Roy of Madrid-Waddington Central, about the possibility of a BOCES ESL program.

“That’s something that would be new to us and something that fits very nicely into our umbrella of services that we provide to districts when they collaborate to meet a need,” he said.

Mr. Todd said that if they see at least two districts that would like to share an ESL service, BOCES could be the source of that program.

“I’m hearing more conversation about it now than I ever have before, and if people are interested. We stand ready to help,” Mr. Todd said.

Mrs. Roddy also spearheaded meetings at Potsdam Central called ESL Collective, a group of professionals from across the north country who work with ESL students to exchange ideas and collaborate.

“It’s a way for us to get together and brainstorm for how we can better help our students,” she said.

They’ve only had two meetings so far, with three people showing up the first time and five the second.

“There aren’t too many ESL workers in the north country to begin with, but we’re hoping this will grow,” Mrs. Roddy said.

Katie Clark contributed to this report.

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