Imagine trying to read and solve math problems in a school where you don't speak the language of your teacher and classmates.
That's the challenge facing roughly 65,000 students in Minnesota, or 8 percent of the student population, who are learning English as they go through the school.
Despite some recent improvement in their test scores, English learners, whose numbers are growing, perform far below the state average in reading, math and science. Only slightly more than half graduate from high school in four years. To boost English learners' performance, some Minnesota schools are trying new approaches designed to help them more quickly grasp the language. Among them is Kennedy Elementary in Willmar, Minn., which has a growing number of students from Somalia.
In the school's newcomer class, students are guided through the simplest of English words. On one recent day, four students in grades 2 to 5 sat with their books open while they tried to keep pace with a voice from a nearby CD player on words like "egg."
The intense two-hour daily class is reserved for students who need the most help, English teacher Shawnda Groen said.
"This is their first year in the country," she said. "So when they came in at the start of the year, [they could say] 'Hi', and that's it."
Most of the state's English learners are in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But in recent years the Twin Cities suburbs and communities in rural Minnesota have seen much of the growth in the number of students who are new to the language. The Willmar district in west central Minnesota started its newcomer class a few years ago to handle a booming English learner population. It doubled in the last decade as immigrant families moved to Willmar to work in local processing plants.
Of the district's 4,200 students, more than 800 are considered English learners, and the number is expected to top 1,000 next fall. Many of the students come from homes where the dominant language is Spanish, Somali, Karen or Arabic. Newcomers' classes like the one in Willmar not only teach basic English, but also introduce students to American culture and the culture of school.
Groen said many of the Somali students she teaches came directly from refugee camps and have not had any formal schooling.
But after a few months at Kennedy Elementary, they can read simple sentences such as "The man had a hat."
Students spend one year in the newcomer class, after which their school day will be a mix of regular classes and English-learner classes. English learner programs in Minnesota schools have essentially worked that way for years.
“We have to do better than we're doing.”Jerry Kjergaard, superintendent
But school officials in Willmar think it's time to find new ways to help English learners perform better in school.
"We have to do better than we're doing," said Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard, who is unhappy with the academic performance of the district's English learners. "We're taking a really hard look at what our current program is and where we want to end up."
The Willmar school district was forced to take a hard look at its English learner program this year after the state Department of Education ranked Kennedy Elementary near the bottom in terms of test scores for English learners. The school is part of a state-monitored improvement program to raise English learners' scores.
Fewer than 1 in 5 English learners at Kennedy are proficient in reading. Although that is nearly double what it was four years ago, it is still 10 percent lower than the statewide average. Kjergaard said he wants nothing less than a completely new program. But he's not quite sure what that will look like.
"The best thing I can say is we're trying," he said.
This week, the district's English learner teachers plan to meet for an intense day of soul searching and data analysis. They hope to identify the root causes for the struggles of their English learners.
The district's director of teaching and learning, Cheryl Nash, said their ultimate goal is a new program that could serve as a model for other schools.
"They can come here and say, 'All right, you figured it out, you made it work. Can we please visit and maybe mimic some of the things that you're doing?'"
“So if they can't come here I go to them.”Loida Espinoza, cultural liaison for Latino families
One piece of that potential future approach is already in place.
In a tiny office at the end of one of Kennedy Elementary's hallways, just inside the library, Loida Espinoza, the newly hired cultural liaison for Latino families. She began work a few months ago.
"I am the bridge, the communicating bridge between parents and teachers," Espinoza said. "I am the voice for the parents and the teachers at the same time."
Espinoza spends her day fielding calls from the parents of Latino students -- including a large number of students from migrant families who lived in Texas and California -- before, during and after school. She acts as an interpreter during parent-teacher conferences, and if parents can't come to the school, she visits them at home.
"Sometimes it's hard for parents to get here due to lack of transportation," she said. "So if they can't come here, I go to them."
It's all part of an effort to better involve Latino parents in the academic lives of their children.
In past years, some parents may have wanted to talk to their children's teachers, raise concerns or visit the school but did not follow through because they had a hard time finding someone at the school who spoke their language, Espinoza said.
That was the same situation for Somali parents, said Anis Iman, the other newly hired parent liaison at Kennedy Elementary.
"Where before even if they had a question they would stay away, kind of uncomfortable to come to the school or call the school, because they don't speak the language, and they know that when they call there isn't going to be help available right away," Iman said. "That's the biggest difference. Now there's help available any time."
Districts across the state are beginning to explore new ways to involve immigrant parents, who for cultural reasons sometimes take a hands-off approach to education, said Elia Dimayuga-Bruggeman, an assistant commissioner at the state Department of Education.
"My parents were never involved in the schools because within our culture we believe that once our children go to school we give our children to our educators, to our teachers, and now they educate them," said Dimayuga-Bruggeman, who as a child moved to the United States from Mexico with her parents. "Just because I don't go to the school doesn't mean I don't care."
Dimayuga-Bruggeman, a former teacher and school principal, is pushing the state's schools to give immigrant parents a better idea of what goes on in school, and how to navigate the system.
"We have to train our parents who are coming into this country on how much we need to be partners in the child's education," she said.
Education researchers say involving immigrant parents may be key to improving student performance.
"If their parent knows about what is going on in school, they're at home asking their child, 'What happened in school today? Do you have homework?'" said Marina Aleixo, a doctoral student in the second languages program at the University of Minnesota.
"All of these things translate into higher motivation into greater dedication to school," said Aleixo, who has studied parent involvement in schools with high numbers of English learners.
There's also a growing sense among educators that involving immigrant parents in school life shouldn't be about pushing them to attend parent-teacher conferences, PTO meetings or sporting events.
A better idea, they say, is for schools to invite parents into the school for a festival or a meal. That way immigrant parents will be more comfortable in the school, allowing them to learn more about what's expected of their children and how they might help.
• Follow Tim Post on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/timpostmpr