Both tutors and English learners gain insight in Beechwood program
By Madelynn Coldiron
When Beechwood Independent Schools looked for some in-house help for a new tutoring program for young English language learners, it came from an unconventional source: high school students.
Since last school year, student volunteers, most in the high school’s Spanish classes and Spanish Honor Society, have spent two days a week after school, helping elementary-grades English learners with their homework and reading to them as part of the district’s overall program for these students.
PHOTO: Beechwood High School tutor Stephanie Carrillo helps two elementary students who were getting the giggles during the RISE (Reading Inspires Student Excellence) after-school program.
The idea blossomed after English learner teacher Robyn Weaver was hired and eighth-grade English teacher Emily Elliott was searching for a way to help one of her Spanish-speaking students.
“We’re seeing high schoolers who are from these families who really struggle because they didn’t have a program that helped them when they were younger,” Elliott explained.
So Weaver and Elliott collaborated to create the program, called Reading Inspires Student Excellence (RISE). The aim is to help younger English learners become better grounded in the language before they reach the upper grades, where the academic gap can become wider.
“It’s important to me as an educator to make sure we have supports in place for these kids,” Weaver said. “Because while they’re learning the language and content at the same time, they’re missing out on some of the content.
“My goal – part of the after-school program – is to close some of the gaps now while they are little so when they get to sixth, seventh, eighth grade, they’re not so far behind. These kids have a huge, huge task.”
The after-school program is Mondays and Wednesdays for nearly an hour. The elementary students arrive first, getting a snack and starting on their homework. When the high school student volunteers arrive – many greeted with big hugs – they help with homework and once that’s done, read a book with their young charges.
The tutoring helps level the playing field for them in the Accelerated Reader program, in which students can receive small rewards for meeting their reading goals.
“I like working with the kids and helping them with their homework,” said sophomore Stephanie Carrillo. “I read to the kids after they don’t have homework and they seem to like it a lot.”
Carrillo says she sees improvement in the skills of the students she tutors, and Elliott said this is borne out by teacher surveys, which showed the EL students “were more prepared and ready to learn, and started to do a little bit better in certain activities, whether that be reading or math.”
Elliott said the tutoring also teaches the high school students leadership, while Spanish teacher Liz Cobb, who sponsors the Spanish Honor Society, said she’s seen an improvement in their Spanish speaking and listening skills.
“The students also feel so much more comfortable speaking Spanish now and seem to be more invested since they are helping the kids,” Cobb said.
Weaver said it’s also important for the older students to understand the kind of struggles the English learners face daily.
Weaver, who also teaches a small high school EL class and collaborates with other teachers, said when her older students similarly needed extra help last year, she recruited adult volunteers from the community to help them after school once a week. As with the high school tutors, she said, both sides get educated.
“Fort Mitchell is not a very diverse community, so I like the fact that parents are getting to know students in a different light and the students are getting to hang out with English-speaking adults,” she said.
The district’s program for English learners was launched in the 2012-13 school year after administrators began looking at demographic projections. The 1,200-student district’s homogeneous, higher-income makeup is changing, said Superintendent Dr. Steve Hutton.
“That was a point I had to get across is that the demographics are changing,” he said. “The numbers were climbing such that we really needed a teacher and a comprehensive program rather than just doing a Band-Aid approach,” he said.
The district had 17 EL students in 2012, a number which has now climbed to 41, Weaver said. Most of the students are in the elementary grades.
“When I was a student and probably up until five, 10 year ago, our demographics were very different. Now they’ve changed,” said board Chairwoman Melanie Stricker. “And one of the things we want to make sure we do as a board is align our resources to support those students.”
Stricker said the board also purchased some iPads with apps that helped improve the language skills of older English learners.
More is needed
Weaver and Elliott said they are trying to devise ways to increase parental participation in RISE. Parents love the program, Weaver said, and parent response was strong for an open house at the beginning of school this year and for an end-of-the-year celebration for the EL students last year.
But some parents may not be able to provide the necessary information for background checks, such as a social security number, she said, which “really limits parent involvement in the school.”
Weaver said she’d like to expand the tutoring program to four days a week. The tutoring may also encompass an online reading program that the district is now piloting with this group.
Hutton said given the increased numbers of English learners expected in the coming years, he would like to hire another teacher and aide next year to work with these students, but funding is an issue. The federal money the district receives does not cover the cost of educating English learners, he said.
In the meantime, Hutton and five of his staff, including the school nurse, have been taking a five-week Spanish for educators class at Northern Kentucky University, and he’s hoping more content-area teachers will take it next year.
“If you can speak some of the language and understand some of the language it validates the parents’ feeling of trust in the school district: we’re not ignoring them or their children and we’re trying to make them feel welcome,” Hutton said.