The walls of one Northside Middle School classroom are decorated with basic English vocabulary. A bookshelf in the back, however, contains books of all different languages. And a question on the white board asks students to create their own definition of a new word.

Room 008 is home to English Language teacher Raquel Contreras’ seventh and eighth grade English Language Learners classes.

“In this room, I’m opening the door of Columbus,” Contreras said. “I’m opening the door of the United States to these students.”

For the past 10 years, Contreras has worked with Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. students to help them learn and master English through the English Language Learners program.

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The program serves about 1,500 students across the 16 schools and McDowell Education Center. Northside alone has 103 students in the program.

As ethnicity enrollment trends change each year and the community becomes more diverse, educators are continuously seeking ways to innovate the program.

Denise Recarte, director of the English Language Learning program, is entering her third year in that role. She said language is fundamental to success in all areas — academically, emotionally and socially.

“How can we do anything if we don’t have the language to do it?” Recarte said. “As English speakers, sometimes we take our English skills and knowledge for granted. We don’t realize how complex it is.”

With 57 different languages spoken by students throughout the school district, Recarte and her team of specialists work both in and out of the classroom to make sure every student excels to a high English proficiency level.

When students first enroll in an Indiana school, their parents or guardians must complete a home language survey. This survey gives school officials a sense for the language a child speaks at home and whether he or she is fluent in English.

At Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., students who speak anything other than English are immediately considered for the English Language Learners program.

Students are given a placement exam to determine their proficiency in English writing, reading, speaking and listening. They are then assigned a proficiency level between one and five, one being the lowest and five being the highest. Northside students who test between a one and three proficiency level are placed in Contreras’ class, while students with a four or five are usually monitored by teaching assistants.

A new way of learning

Contreras is one of 12 English Language teachers employed by the corporation.

At 10:25 a.m. every school day, eight eighth-grade students meet in her classroom for a specialized English Language Learner exploratory class. During the 50-minute block of time, Contreras coordinates a variety of activities for the students to become acquainted with new vocabulary. In one particular session, the students focus on five vocabulary terms previously used in their math class earlier that morning, including “analyze,” “predict” and “evaluate.”

Taped on each of the classroom windows is a white sheet of paper with one of the five terms printed in black type. With two minutes, each student writes a related term or definition under the printed word. After the two-minute block is over, Contreras leads the class in determining what each word means.

“I’m not the one who likes to give them the definition of a word because I know them, but I want them to discover the definition of the words,” Contreras said. “We’re not looking for the definition in the dictionary. We are going to make it a goal using the words they already have.”

These eight students share all their classes together, making it easier for Contreras to follow them in their core content classes of math, science, social studies and language arts. Contreras shadows the students in both their language arts and math classes every day, keeping track of what they learn and working with the teachers to ensure they’re communicating effectively with the English Language Learners.

“Our EL teachers are the specialists, but classroom teachers are making a huge effort to reach out and make sure their content is accessible to English learners, too,” Recorte said. “Our focus in this program is to really support that. Our EL teachers work alongside our classroom content teachers to provide them with strategies and ways they can make their content is accessible.”

Luis Cordova, 13, moved to Columbus from Mexico when he was 8. He has been involved in the BCSC English Language Learners program since he was in fifth grade.

Cordova has learned how to read, speak, write and pronounce words in English.

“This class has been extremely helpful for me learning new words,” Cordova said. “I still have a little bit to learn, but I’m getting better.”

By staying engaged and participating in classroom activities, Cordova said he’s able master the vocabulary he already knows and retain new information.

Continuously growing

BCSC Superintendent Jim Roberts said the English Language Learners program plays a critical role in removing language barriers a student may face.

“We have become, over several years, a more diverse community than we once were,” Roberts said. “It’s even more important that we do a nice job in educating all students on our diversity and our differences.”

The corporation spends more than $1 million annually to fund several aspects of the program. It also receives Title III federal funding because it is a program aimed at developing English proficiency, as well as state funding from the Non-English Speaking Program, which provides supplemental funding for corporations to provide English language development instruction.

Recarte said the corporation’s population growth trends mirror that of both Indiana and the nation, which is why the program not only serves the community’s international students but also Columbus natives.

“Columbus students can experience the world without going anywhere,” Recarte said. “I always encourage English speakers to learn another language because with the communication we have today, you don’t have to get on an airplane or go anywhere in order to use the language skills. You can use them in your very own classroom.”

With the recent addition of the corporation’s Cultural Learning Center, a new multilingual resource for the district’s international families housed at Columbus North High School, Recarte hopes to provide an even greater variety of services to students and families throughout the community.

“I look at language and culture as being very meshed together,” Recarte said. “My goal is that all families have the same information in a language they can understand. I want them to have access to the same information and be able to make good choices for their students. We’re hoping to be able to expand the Cultural Learning Center, create programs not only for those new incoming families but for the students in BCSC and provide leadership and international opportunities.”

English Language Learner program

To learn more about Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation’s English Language Learner program, visit bcsc.k12.in.us/domain/22.

Cultural Learning Center

The Cultural Learning Center is the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s new multilingual resource for international families. The center provides support for the corporation’s population of English Language Learner students and aims to increase awareness of cultural differences and barriers.

The center also provides after-school assistance to students in their home language.

For more information about the Cultural Learning Center, located in Room 1234 of Columbus North High School, visit bcsc.k12.in.us/Page/16604 or email Denise Recarte at recarted@bcsc.k12.in.us.