Thursday, November 1, 2007

Learning tool for Spanish speakers to be added at high school

Students, here is a good link that explains what the Plazas Comunitarias are about.

Dra. Valenzuela

Learning tool for Spanish speakers to be added at high school
Grant from Mexican consulate

By Benjamin Price | | Story updated at 11:04 PM on Monday, October 29, 2007
Noris Price knows first-hand how difficult it is to learn anything in a language she doesn't understand.

The Clarke County School District's associate superintendent arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic at age 10, and found it hard enough to grasp the words her teacher said, much less the meanings behind them.

By high school, Price knew English well enough to graduate and go on to college, but even then Spanish still was her preferred language. The more complicated the subject matter, the more Price found she still faced a language barrier.

"Academic language is knowing English well enough to learn science, biology, chemistry, physics - that's very different than socializing with my friends," she said.

That's why Price and other Clarke County school officials believe new software provided by the Mexican government could help hundreds of students here whose first language is Spanish.

Clarke Central High School will become one of the first schools in Georgia to use computer software known as Plaza Comunitaria, or Community Plaza, after receiving a $15,000 grant from the Mexican consulate this month.

The school plans to offer the program in January.

The Plaza Comunitaria provides students with Georgia high school curriculum in Spanish after school, to compliment the same lessons they learn in the class during the school day. It will help students who speak some English reinforce what they learn, district officials said, and help them tackle difficult concepts that can get further muddled by a language barrier.

Students who speak very little English could use the software after school to work toward their GED or even get a Mexican equivalency diploma.

Currently about 150 high school students in the Clarke County School District are enrolled in some form of language support classes.

But even students who speak English well enough to test out of English for Speakers of Other Languages still may have trouble grasping more complicated subjects, Clarke Central Principal Maxine Easom said.

"They can converse with you in English, so you think they're getting it, but in reality, they don't know those academic words well enough to do chemistry, physics and calculus," Easom said.

Because all Georgia public school instruction and textbooks are in English, Easom said students rarely have an opportunity to see the same concepts in their native language.

The purpose of the Plaza Comunitaria software is to give students extra support in Spanish where they can concentrate solely on mastering the content, said Vicki Krugman, director of the Clarke County School District's ESOL program. "It's going to keep our kids well-versed in content, where in previous years we spent so much time on language we never get to content and time runs out," Krugman said.

Trying to learn English and high school-level math and science well enough to graduate is just too much for some students to accomplish in the three to four years they're in high school, Easom said.

As a consequence, about 70 percent of Clarke County's ESOL students don't graduate on time, according to the district, putting them at much greater risk of dropping out.

They also struggle with the Georgia High School Graduation Test, which is given only in English.

Less than half of ESOL students passed the state graduation test in math last year, and only 58 percent pass the English portion of the test, district officials said.

"If they move here in the 10th grade, it's quite a challenge for them to, first of all, learn the things they need to learn, then pass the standardized tests in English," Easom said. "The state requires they're only given the test in English, and that only compounds it."

For high school students for whom the language barrier proves too great to have a realistic chance of a high school diploma, they can use the software after school to get a GED - which requires a test the state does offer in Spanish.

In some cases, a student also could use the software to receive a Mexican equivalency diploma, which they could use to attend some U.S. colleges, including Athens Technical College.

However, school officials emphasized that students would have to work toward those alternative diplomas on their own, without the help of school officials.

"Our goal is to have them graduate from our high school with a Georgia high school diploma," Price said. "But there are times when our English language learners come to us as 11th- or 12th-graders, and it's a huge challenge. They can have access to this software on their own and possibly get a Mexican diploma."

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 102907

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