‘Village of support:’ EVSC celebrates 20 years of English as a Second Language program

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its English as a Second Language program — an initiative designed to improve the academic experiences of international students.

During Monday’s school board meeting, ESL faculty made a presentation in recognition of the program’s milestone, and to cap off the celebration, an open house for local teachers, students and families is set for 5:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Harrison High School. The event will feature live music and a presentation from Harrison students.

Since the ESL program was developed in 1999, the EVSC has worked to teach non-fluent students English and soften their cultural adjustment after moving from their native countries to Evansville. 

Over time, the program has continued to grow its number of participating students. This year there are 730 participants, a significant increase from the 1999-2000 academic year, when there were fewer than 100 ESL students, according to the district data. 

ESL Director Jacque Barnette attributes this growth to the work faculty have done to accommodate international students.

“This hard work has been happening for 20 years,” she said. “I feel like we’re gaining visibility in the community because our numbers are so big. As the director, I’m so excited to celebrate my teachers and the EVSC’s support for these students and their families.”

The continued growth speaks to the steps the program has made to fulfill students’ and teachers’ needs, Barnette said.

For a program that’s largely known for aiding Spanish-speaking students, it expanded to accommodate students representing more than 50 languages — twice as many languages since the program’s inception. The most notable languages are Spanish, Marshallese, Creole and Japanese.

Additional teachers have been hired and trained to instruct these ESL students, thus making their educational and cultural transition easier, Barnette said.

Rachel Koester, an ESL coach, works directly with general education teachers to ensure they are comfortable working with international students, often advising them on effective tips and instructional methods.

She said one of the most useful resources for teachers is Google Translate, making it easier for “on-the-spot translations” for ESL students and their families. Koester has also shared tools like Remind101 and TalkingPoints, which also provide translation options. 

EVSC spokesman Jason Woebkenberg said these resources would have eased teachers’ uncertainty in years past.

“I can think back 20 years ago when I was a principal, and teachers truly had a look of fear in their face,” Woebkenberg said. “Not because they didn’t want to help (ESL students) but because they didn’t know how. And while it still can be stressful, the support that’s in place has totally changed that.”

With the support of the EVSC and coaches like Koester, 852 general education teachers (63 percent) have at least one ESL student in their classroom. The school corporation’s biggest objective, Koester said, is to see these students continue to use their resources and improve their academic performance.

Koester said many past ESL students have proven to be successful outside the program.

“I’m excited to inspire them on their track and career,” she said. “They’re all amazing and I love hearing about their background. I’m just so thankful for this village of support to help students be successful even after they move pass their time with us.”

Janelle Nisly, an ESL teacher at Harrison High School, said witnessing her students’ progress is rewarding, especially after seeing them go through the process of learning a new language and environment.

“It’s probably one of the most exhilarating things, because you see them (students) come in scared and uncertain,” Nisly said. “You walk a family, not just a student, through that process. And then to see them fly, wow. That’s why I love this job. You give them the tools for a real person to emerge in a new culture.”

Edgar Rodriguez, a fourth-year student at Harrison High School, said since moving from Mexico four years ago the ESL program has been the catalyst for his progress as a student and English learner.

“It’s been really good,” Rodriguez said. “When I came to the United States four years ago, I couldn’t speak English, and I was scared of the new people in school and the language. Then I came to an ESL class, and it really helped me to learn English and be more (comfortable) in the school. It was really fun, too.”

Koester believes having teachers and community members that support ESL students has inspired more families to settle in Evansville.

“Families want to come here because it’s a welcoming place,” she said. “It’s powerful that we’re embracing that diversity and asking people to come to us. It’s a good place to come, live here and resettle.”

The influx of international families and students brings much needed “depth of character” and diversity to the Evansville community, Nisly said. She believes the number of families will continue to increase as the district and residents remain open to different cultures.

Barnette said the ESL staff and school corp. are already planning to build programs for the next two decades. 

— Courier & Press

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