CINCINNATI – Think of how tough it is to teach any kid to read and write. Then add that the kid speaks a different language than you.
Then imagine you are trying to teach kids who speak 80 different languages.
That's exactly the challenge teachers face daily in Cincinnati Public Schools, where 80 native languages are spoken among students. Like many urban districts, CPS has become a magnet for refugees and other immigrants who speak languages from every corner of the globe, languages like Arabic and African forms of French, but also obscure tongues that have no written components.
The population of English language learners in Greater Cincinnati has grown 250 percent in the last five years, according to the grant writers, and Cincinnati is now home to 11,000 refugees.
The cacophony puts a school like CPS's Academy of World Languages in Evanston at risk of becoming a Tower of Babel where children can't begin to learn or even navigate their way to lunch or the school bus, let alone befriend one another.
But AWL, whose original focus was to introduce native English speakers to Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Russian, has shifted most of its resources to educating children from around the world through coursework that starts with learning English.
The school's efforts are about to get a big boost this year from a $14.5 million state grant that CPS and Princeton City Schools won from Ohio's Straight A Grant fund. The districts plan to use the money to certify as many as 900 teachers in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL).
"I wanted to think big," said Mireika "Marie" Kobayashi, Cincinnati school's ESL and World Languages manager, a leader of the successful grant-writing effort. "We wanted to make sure our teachers had the support they needed for our vision."
Princeton may be a suburban district, but its immigrant population is also burgeoning. A full 17 percent of students are English language learners, according to Heidi Stickney, Princeton's director of special education.
Among the non-English natives, the large majority speak Spanish, but 40 languages are spoken in the district of nearly 5,700 students.
"For many families, this is their first opportunity to be in a public education system," Stickney said.
The districts partnered with Xavier University, which created a new TESL program to accommodate the growing need for teachers adept at teaching English.
"We’re all excited," Dr. Cindy Geer, chair of Xavier's Department of Childhood Education and Literacy. "The courses are designed to help teachers deal with culturally diverse students, and they will help with all students."
Xavier won approval last fall from the Ohio Board of Regents to teach the certification program, and the grant means classes that started this month are already brimming with student teachers. "This is really kick-starting our program. It’s wonderful to be able to start off and have such a great role in helping those teachers and students," Geer said.
The group also teamed up with Hamilton County Title III Consortium, which provides a range of support services for the districts.
Photos, Gesturing and Hugs
To communicate with students from such a broad range of cultures, teachers rely on visual queues like photos, lots of gesturing and anything else that reaches individual students.
English learning students in kindergarten through second grade get 30 minutes of English and Second Language training a day.
Christine Erskine's kindergarten class of English language learners filed into their bright and open classroom on a recent school day brimming with excitement. Some girls from the Muslim faith wore colorful head scarves, some African girls wore colorful braids. One boy who only spoke Arabic had just arrived in class one week earlier.
But Erskine and the school won the trust and affection of at least some of the kids who lined up to hug her, followed by hugs for Rebecca Striebeck, another ESL teacher, and then, unprompted, hugs for two strangers.
Within a few minutes, Erskine had settled the children into their chairs for – or at least near them – an animated call and response reading of "We're Going on a Lion Hunt," which the children were familiar with through repetition. She knows some American Sign Language, which she employs to help get her points across.
"There's tall grass ahead!" Erskine read.
"Can't go over it," she said -- miming climbing.
"Can't go over it!" smiling children yelled back.
"Can't go under it," Erskine said, ducking.
"Can't go under it!" children responded.
"Can't go around it," Erskine said. "We'd better crawl through it."
The new Arabic-speaking student soaked it in without participating. He has a long road ahead of him to become proficient in English. Kobayashi said it takes an average of five to seven years for children to become proficient if they received quality instruction in their native languages before emigrating. If not – as is the case with many Muslim girls denied an education in their native lands – the process
takes seven to 11 years, she said.
But with the army of certified teachers, new software and other resources that CPS is adding and with the help of the grant, they hope to pare that learning time down to three to five years.
"By exposing our teachers to high-quality instruction and offering supplemental software, this combination, we’re hoping, shortens the time," she said.
Accelerated English learning, if successful, would help students catch up to their American-born peers and save the districts money by reducing the need for ESL instruction.
Innovative, Thoughtful Approaches to Teaching
Teachers use anything and everything to reach students. A website, www.clevercrazes.com , helps students learn various subject matter at their own pace and earn prizes by completing lessons – athletic shoes, Apple gift cards and other prizes.
Others may respond to jump-rope songs as a way to improve their English or by drawing a picture and discussing it with a teacher or aide.
In Aaron Brown's sixth-grade English arts class, more than half the students are English Language Learners. Brown played a clip of Frank Sinatra singing "Fly Me to the Moon," and quizzed the children in a variety of ways about it, encouraging them to think critically about the music, its context and communicating effectively. He employed the "turn and talk" method of telling students to break off into small groups to complete part of the assignment before returning to a class discussion.
Brown has taught at AWL for seven years and savors the diversity.
"I just find it to be a great opportunity to learn about different cultures, for the kids and for me," he said.
Like Erskine and Striebeck, he will strengthen his skills by taking the TSL certification program at Xavier.
A Mini United Nations
Jacquelyn Rowedder, AWL's principal, said the school's population of students who need to learn English has ballooned from 22 in 1994 to 367 this year.
"It's very much a mini-United Nations here," she said.
Often, the children and parents who walk into the school office have endured a harrowing, multi-year process getting out of their native countries. About 95 percent of the school's students qualify for free or reduced lunches, a basic indicator for poverty for students.
Recently, a school official casually asked a sixth-grade girl how she came to American from Bhutan.
"In a plane," was her initial answer, Rowedder said, but after a few follow-up questions, the school learned that her father threw her through an open door of a plane that was taxiing down a runway.
Her parents had no idea where the plane was going, just that it offered their daughter a chance at a new life. She eventually connected with relatives in Cincinnati, but she hasn't heard from her parents since that chaotic day.
That girl, unlike the kindergarteners, is starting far behind her peers, but CPS will use resources from the grant to do their best to catch her up. She'll get help from Catholic Charities, which works with the schools to support refugees. For students like her, the school has to start from scratch on everything, Rowedder said, working through language barriers to show her which school bus to board after school to how to get a teacher's attention by raising her hand.
"It's hard to appreciate the situation these kids are in," she said.
Schools are judged on the state test scores of their students, but very little leeway is given to account for refugees. There is a one-year exemption in reading but none for all other assessments, according to Connie Reyes-Rau of Hamilton County Title III Consortium.
"That's a flaw in the system," she said.
The districts hope to reach more than 14,000 people through the program, including students and their parents who may also be English language learners.
They'll use the grant to buy and license use of Tell Me More, an interactive language program similar to Rosetta Stone that has a particular focus on teaching students how to write and speak in educational and professional terms.
It will be available for use by any family members within the school systems -- value added for anyone wanting to expand their cultural and language horizons.
"It's a great way for families to learn about diversity," Stickney said.
They'll also use the grant to work with Global to Local Language Solutions, a Cincinnati document translation service, to translate state and district forms of all kinds into Farsi, French, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic. Those documents will be shared with districts throughout the state for use by their immigrant families.
"What makes this unique compared to other grant awards is that we are really trying to make sure we’re building capacity in this region to work with the diverse population we’re seeing in our schools," Kobayashi said.
Photography by Emily Maxwell, WCPO photojournalist