Passionate Team Embraces New Learners of English

Maria Sleight, Dawn Smith and Jamie Lewis work together teaching students English

Growing numbers of English-language learners led Thornapple Kellogg Schools to hire its first ELL district coordinator this year and create a team that’s passionate about its students and mission. ELL student numbers have been rising yearly in the district, reaching 80 this school year, up from 60 in 2014-15.

The new, full-time district coordinator is Jamie Lewis. Dawn Smith and Maria Sleight work with her as para-educators. They seem to eat, sleep and breathe their work and dedication to their students. “We get really close to the students,” Smith says.

How close? Four former students call her “mom,” said Lewis, who used to drive a student without transportation to school and back every day. When Smith asked a student once why she spent lunch with her and not her classmates, she recalled the student replying, “Why would I do that when I can be with my best friends?”

The three women aren’t the only ones who see the importance of providing more help to students who need to learn English. Other teachers, staff and administration and the close-knit Middleville community also contribute. Only the salaries of the instructors were in the district’s budget, so creative ways had to be found for getting supplies like books and other educational materials. Teachers and departments have stepped up and generously given part of their materials budgets to the ELL program. The administration also has been very supportive, Lewis said.

“They understand how important it is and how great our needs are,” she said, adding that ELL programs are not growing just in Middleville, but nationally. “The number of students who need services is growing every year. The need to support our EL students is not going to go away.”

Lewis thinks large farms in the area that offer job opportunities and the close-knit community have brought many Hispanic families to live in the Middleville area.

“I really think TK is a very family-oriented district,” she said. For example, when it was learned a family was sleeping on the floor, beds were found for them within a few days with the help of staff and community. And to make sure the families have food to last through the weekend, bags of donated food go home every Friday with the students.

When Thornapple Kellogg first started ELL offerings several years ago, a Spanish teacher with ELL certification worked the position as an additional job, Lewis said. Next, an English teacher was hired to work as a part-time para-educator with ELL students. Smith was hired as a part-time para-educator for the program eight years ago and has been full-time ELL the last two years. Lewis started out as a part-time para-educator before becoming the district coordinator. Sleight joined the team a year ago. Teachers also play a big role in working with students in their classrooms.

Lewis said the school’s goal is to create a curriculum for different age levels. This will make it easier for teachers to know when to start teaching students once the school year begins, a process they say is very time-consuming.

The team gets very protective of its students who don’t have the advantages of other students, Lewis said. Stories of how some of the children made it to Thornapple Kellogg schools, though, are life experiences other students can’t match. Lewis said one crossed the desert with two sandwiches, a gallon of water and five bucks. Another young girl rode on top of a Mexican train carrying more than 1,000 illegal immigrants that made headlines when it derailed going to the Texas border in July 2014.

Getting an education is one of the top reasons students want to make it to the U.S., Smith said. “I love working with this population. They value this like a lot of American students don’t. These are bright kids who don’t want to fall back academically just because they don’t know the language.”

A Perfect Addition

One issue all ELL programs face is that when students go home after school, it’s like going back to Mexico, Lewis said, since cultural ways take over and Spanish is spoken there. The difficulties that can cause have improved since Sleight, who is from Columbia, was hired a year ago. She helps translate at parent-teacher conferences, takes calls day and night from families and volunteers three days a week.

Having a team member who speaks Spanish is a “huge blessing” to the program, Smith said. “It’s not just teaching English. It’s helping adapt to the culture.”

Before Sleight, parents didn’t know how to be involved, Lewis said. “Families are finding they really have a voice now.”

It’s typical for students to enter school not speaking any English, but they progress quickly and grow socially, Smith said. “It’s amazing to watch,” she said. Lewis likes to tell the story of a seventh-grade science teacher who had a student who started out very, very quiet. Once the student picked up on the language, he turned into such a talker, his teacher went online and found out how to say “stop talking” in Spanish.

“At first he wouldn’t say anything. Now he won’t shut up,” Lewis said with a big smile.

Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio

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