At Hoover High School on the northwest side of Des Moines, the student body is made up of kids who speak 40 languages. This means teachers who specialize in English Language Learners carry an especially heavy burden.
It’s spelling lesson time in the second-year ELL class taught by Ann Mincks. She's sounding out the word tap and explaining what it means.
This is one of six sections of ELL Mincks is teaching this year. The school has identified more than 350 students out of a student body of nearly 1,100 as English Language Learners. Mincks first became interested in different cultures while growing up in Columbus Junction, a town with a large immigrant population. In her 11 years teaching ELL, she has found each class unique.
“I think the biggest thing is just being flexible and building relationships with students," she says. "Once you know them, you know what’s going to work for that particular group of students.”
There are around 7,000 English Language Learners in the Des Moines public schools, a bit more than 20 percent of the total student population. In some of Iowa's smaller districts, such as Denison, more than half the students are in ELL classes. The state pays around $1,500 above the regular per-student funding rate for ELL students. Which is not enough, says Janiece Ochoa, a 29-year veteran ELL instructor.
“There are not enough resources out there for what we would call our newcomers, especially at the high school level," she says. "Finding materials that are appropriate as far as age level as well as language level is extremely difficult.”
There are five teachers who specialize in ELL at Hoover. The school’s first year principal, Sherry Poole, says they’re stretched.
“We never have enough ELL instructors or interpreters or people to bridge contact and communication between home and school,” she says.
As a result, Poole says, Hoover leans on community volunteers. A member of the nearby Meredith Drive Reformed Church, Carolyn Wassenaar, is one of them. She’s impressed with the challenges ELL teachers face.
“There were new students in the last two weeks of school," she says. "That’s just kind of amazing that you’re trying to integrate new students in those last weeks of school.”
There are three levels of English Language Learners at Hoover – emerging, mostly newcomers to the program; progressing, which most ELL students at Hoover are considered; and proficient, which means a student can independently speak, read, write and listen in English. Senior Day Say has reached that level. She was five years old when her family left a refugee camp in Thailand and arrived in Des Moines. At home, they speak Karen. She says she struggled with English at first.
“It was pretty hard for me because also at the same time I was learning my native language because I was young and didn’t know the whole way to speak the Karen,” she says.
Senior Francis Jim Mallari is another former ELL student now deemed proficient in English. His family speaks Tagalog, the predominant language of the Philippines. He found the nuances of English confusing.
“I mostly didn’t know a lot of complex words and mostly I didn’t know a lot of the slang words people use around here and how they pronounce these words," he says. "So I had to learn basic English first.”
Hoover ELL teacher, Caitlin Pritchard, says there are additional pressures on most students who are learning English.
“Some of them have to be the caretaker for the family," she says. "They have to be the provider moneywise, they have to be the translator for them, they have to be the transportation for them.”
Which is why, she says, watching them walk across the stage at graduation is so satisfying.
“That’s just second to none, right?”