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Providing a quality education for all learners of every level is the primary focus for both of Nebraska City’s school systems, the public school system and the town’s parochial school, Lourdes Central Catholic.
In order to deliver that education, it is often required that educators overcome a language barrier.
Dr. Jeffrey Edwards, superintendent at Nebraska City Public Schools, quoted numbers indicating that, during the 2017-18 school year in NCPS buildings, 275 students out of 1,400, almost 19 percent, were Hispanic.
In addition, the school serves students who may speak Laotian and Mandarin Chinese among others.
Fortunately, the schools have assets available which allow for good communication and the building of relationships with families so that students can be a part of the school community and receive an education that can be equal to that of their English primary speaking classmates.
At NCPS, the school works with area businesses and partners at the Lourdes school to determine what students might be needing help with developing English skills.
At the beginning of each year, the school hosts a picnic, usually held in early August, to welcome English as a second language students and their families.
This year’s picnic is set for Aug. 6.
At this relaxed off campus event students and parents meet their English as a second language teachers and hear about school programs and athletic opportunities while also hearing from and meeting the administration team for the school system.
“It’s a chance for us to meet outside of the school setting,” Edwards said, noting that interpreters are there to make the process easy for all.
From there, Dr. Edwards said efforts are made to get the students evaluated with the English Language Proficiency Assessment (ELPA) test, a three-year program that charts development and growth in the language.
Also of note, during the course of the school year, messages sent by the school by letter and also electronically through text messages to phones, automated phone calls and emails, are all sent based in the language that students speak at home.
Students designate that language while signing up at the central office for classes.
Brian Hoover, principal at Nebraska City High School, said that efforts are made to work around, not just language differences, but also cultural differences. Building an understanding of why the school does things in a certain way is critical. It’s also critical to acknowledge and honor the culture of the people who are coming into the school.
When a student behaves in a way that doesn’t align with the way English speakers act, it can sometimes be anything but insubordination.
“It’s not that people are not willing. It’s just different,” Hoover said.
As time goes by, Hoover said the students tend to find their footing. And that’s in part thanks to the relationships they build with the sub-community of English as a second language students, which gives a sense of belonging.
That group numbered 16 students at the high school last year.
As far as academic evaluation goes, Hoover said it’s often times math that gets the ball rolling.
Since math rules work the same regardless of language, Hoover said students can join in much quicker—with the English skills coming along over time.
At the Lourdes schools, the approach differs slightly because English as a second language students, their peers and their instructors, already share a common lagrange of faith.
Father Mark Cyza said the first contact with a non-English speaking family might be in a church setting.
As a priest, Fr. Cyza said he has the benefit of meeting people and getting to know them before they ever come to school for the first day.
Once at the school, the student and their family members are incorporated into all of the different functions and events of the school.
Fr. Cyza said the addition of non-English speakers is a way to broaden the cultural horizons of the English speaking students as well. And the family-type atmosphere at Lourdes is always given a priority status.
“That caring and that love transcends language and culture,” said Fr. Cyza. “That’s something we try to be intentional about.”
Academically, the school system begins to assess students by looking at transcripts and by constant communication.
Care is taken, Fr. Cyza said, to make sure that an issue in school is language related. Examination is also given to the fact that a student may have a learning disability that’s causing the issue, rather than language.
Lourdes does get some additional help from outside of the building. Fr. Cyza said the school enlists the help of Jennifer Madison at Educational Service Unit 4 in Auburn to offer further advice on working students into the Lourdes academic life in a seamless and comfortable way.
In terms of the community’s population overall, Fr. Cyza said Nebraska City had been a very mobile population during recent history with people coming here following work and then leaving when the work was done.
These days, the population seems to be much more stable, he said, with people putting down roots and investing.
Those kinds of people want to become a part of the fabric of the community and that effort is greatly enhanced when English as a second language students receive the education and feel the connection that schools can offer.
Both schools place a high value on this pursuit and will continue to reach out to their non-English speakers in every way possible.
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