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ESL classes a growing need in north country

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Migrant families who have moved to the north country for farm work are enrolling their children in area schools, creating an increase in the need for English as a second language programs.

Potsdam Central School used to be the only district in St. Lawrence County with an ESL program, according to Superintendent Patrick H. Brady. That is no longer the case.

“Historically, we have a low number of students in our 18 districts who have been English language learners, so this has not been something that has been a great need,” said Stephen J. Todd, St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services assistant superintendent for instruction. “But recently conversations about that particular service have increased.”

Lisbon Central School hired a full-time ESL teacher, Desiree A. Roddy, in 2012.

“Farms here are hiring workers from other countries and they’re bringing their children,” Mrs. Roddy said. “They found our area and it’s beautiful and the land is cheap.”

Mrs. Roddy said she teaches seven students in kindergarten through 12th grade, five of whom speak Pennsylvania Dutch and two of whom speak Spanish. The Spanish-speaking students are from Puerto Rico. She said many families move here from Puerto Rico for higher wages since the minimum wage is $3.15 more.

The five students who speak Pennsylvania Dutch are from a Gouverneur family that left the Amish community, according to Lisbon Superintendent Erin E. Woods. Mrs. Roddy said Lisbon has a contract with Gouverneur Central School that sends the five students to Lisbon Central for its ESL program.

Mr. Brady said Potsdam has shared its program with other districts as well, including Lisbon.

“We hired Pota Davis in 2005 as an ESL and speech teacher,” he said. “She was working at the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES at the time and providing services to our school.”

Mr. Brady said Potsdam has had up to 20 students in the program at once, enough to make it “economically feasible to hire her exclusively for our district.”

Mr. Brady said the increase in ESL students in Potsdam is a result of the colleges in the community.

“We sometimes get professors from other nations that move here to teach and their children go to school here, but English is a second language to them,” he said.

As more Lisbon students needed an ESL program, the district hired Mrs. Roddy, Ms. Woods said.

In 2007, the state passed a law that any school that has even one student who speaks English as a second language is required to provide an ESL program.

“I’m here to help these students become successful and bilingual adults so they won’t have to rely on programs like this the rest of their lives,” Mrs. Roddy said.

In Jefferson County, several school districts have a large number of students who speak English as a second language. At Carthage Central School, about 30 out of 3,500 students speak English as a second language.

Philadelphia Primary School Principal Barbara A. Zehr is the director of ESL studies for the roughly 122 students in the Indian River Central School District who have identified their first language as other than English.

“The majority of our ESL students speak Spanish and have a military background, but we have students from 18 different language backgrounds represented and 24 countries,” Ms. Zehr said.

She said even if a student has no knowledge of the English language, he or she will be placed in a classroom to learn by immersion.

“They will have an aide with them to interpret what is being said in the classroom, but we want them to learn in the classroom,” Ms. Zehr said. “The best thing to do to learn is to immerse them into the language.”

At the end of the year, the students take a state English language achievement test to gauge progress. Ms. Zehr said among the 19 languages spoken by students are Filipino, Russian, Samoan, Thai, Haitian Creole, Arabic, Chinese, Ashanti and German.

“It really adds to our school community to have so many cultures represented here,” Ms. Zehr said.

Mr. Todd said that although he does not have the data to support numbers for how many students in the area need an ESL program, he recently has had “informal conversations” with some area superintendents, including Lynn M. Roy of Madrid-Waddington Central, about the possibility of a BOCES ESL program.

“That’s something that would be new to us and something that fits very nicely into our umbrella of services that we provide to districts when they collaborate to meet a need,” he said.

Mr. Todd said that if it sees at least two districts that would like to share an ESL service, BOCES could be the source of that program.

“I’m hearing more conversation about it now than I ever have before, and if people are interested, we stand ready to help,” he said.

Mrs. Roddy also spearheaded meetings at Potsdam Central called ESL Collective, a group of professionals from across the north country who work with ESL students to exchange ideas and collaborate.

“It’s a way for us to get together and brainstorm for how we can better help our students,” she said.

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