Delavan-Darien schools reach out to Hispanic pupils

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Kayla Bunge
Thursday, January 24, 2008
— Second-graders Noemy Rodriguez and Claudia Zuniga stared at the book.

English is their second language, and the girls had met a word they'd never seen: "whole."

Bilingual teacher Amy Ash tried to explain.

"Whole," she said, sounds the same as "hole" but has a different meaning.

She demonstrated the difference using Post-It Notes, first poking her pen through one to make a hole and then cutting away a quarter of one to make a part of the whole.

Noemy and Claudia didn't get it. To them, "whole" still was something found in a sock or in the ground.

Ash asked if they knew the Spanish word "entero," which means "whole."

They nodded.

Then she asked if they knew the Spanish word "hoyo," which means "hole."

They nodded again, and things became clear.

Noemy and Claudia opened the book and began to absorb other new words, such as "bunch," "piece" and "dozen."

Noemy and Claudia are among the 40 percent of students in the Delavan-Darien School District who are Hispanic. That's the second-highest percentage in Wisconsin, behind only a charter school in Milwaukee, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Teaching reading, writing and arithmetic when two out of 10 kids also are learning to speak English presents a list of challenges for the school district.

But Ash said small-group interaction with a teacher fluent in Spanish—such as the "whole" and "hole" discussion with Noemy and Claudia—is putting English-language learners on pace with their classmates who grew up speaking English.

"They're just like any other set of kids, but these just need a little more support," Ash said.

And the other kids are learning something, too.

'Just like us'

Initially drawn to the area by jobs at farms, factories and resorts, more and more Hispanics are calling Walworth County home because their families are established here.

"We've always had this population," said Tracy Deavers, director of instruction. "They've been a part of Delavan for many, many years."

Spanish is the native language for more than 20 percent of students in Delavan-Darien School District, the highest percentage in Wisconsin.

To keep up, the district has expanded and revamped resources.

The district hired more bilingual teachers—nine now compared to two or three a decade ago—and changed the way they work.

Before, students learning English were pulled out of the classroom to work with a bilingual teacher. But starting this year, the bilingual teachers are going into the regular classrooms.

Deavers said it has opened the eyes of the district's English-speaking students.

"The interaction is so great," Deavers said. "They realize they're just like us, except they speak two languages and we only speak one. It helps them understand that all students have challenges."

The infusion of English-language support in everyday learning has shattered the "something's wrong with them" stereotype, she said.

Kathy Finch, a second-grade teacher and 30-year veteran at Wileman Elementary School, wasn't accustomed to having another teacher in her classroom. But she said the transition to having Ash in the classroom was smooth.

It's common for Finch to split her class into small groups—one to work on reading, another to work on writing and another to work with Ash—so students receive the attention they need.

"We can reach students better in those small groups," Finch said.

Since the district moved toward inclusive instruction, students don't seem to notice the presence of two languages in the classroom, Deavers said.

"There's no division: 'You're my teacher, you're their teacher,'" she said.

All students, regardless of their language proficiency, benefit from having two teachers, Deavers said.

"It's an opportunity for them to learn from two people, to be exposed to two ways of teaching," she said.

Bag of tricks

The high concentration of students who struggle with English, however, presents challenges for the school district.

With a limited staff, it's difficult to provide English-language learners with the same opportunities and resources as their classmates, Deavers said.

Although many of the district's grade-level teachers have received bilingual training, it's only a drop in the bucket, Deavers said.

"They rely on what works for the students they have," she said. "They're continuously digging in their bag of tricks to find something that works."

The district's lower standardized test scores create a perception that the district is lagging academically.

Research shows students with limited English proficiency and students of a lower socioeconomic status often don't perform well on standardized tests.

"We have to find ways to get them ready for the test," Deavers said.

This school year, the state offered its Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination in Spanish and Hmong. Last year, the Delavan-Darien School District translated the test on its own.

"We found that they were tripping up because of the language barrier," Deavers said.

She said the district saw a slight increase in scores with the translated version of the test.

The bottom line is to educate all students, bilingual or not, Superintendent Wendy Overturf said.

"So much time and energy goes into meeting this group's unique needs," she said. "But so much of working with bilingual students is really good teaching, and all our students are benefiting."


Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision that Americans of every kind could live in harmony remains at the top of the nation's agenda nearly 40 years after his assassination. The Janesville Gazette is examining local aspects of that vision as it marks Martin Luther King Day 2008.

Monday—Lots of schools and businesses take a day off to mark Martin Luther King Day, but not the Janesville School District. Reporter Frank Schultz tells what the local district does instead.

Tuesday—Rock County has done so well in addressing the imbalance of minorities in juvenile detention that it's earned a grant to expand a Beloit-based program to Janesville. Reporter Ann Marie Ames talks to two Beloit boys about how their lives have changed.

Wednesday—Eric Beck remembers when his family was one of three black families in Janesville. Reporter Stacy Vogel tells the story of Eric and his daughter, Amy, and asks them about Janesville's growing diversity.

Today—Which Wisconsin school district with the highest concentration of native Spanish speakers? Delavan-Darien. Reporter Kayla Bunge asks how the district has adapted.

Friday—Walworth County is becoming more diverse, but does local government reflect that trend? Reporter Mike Heine takes a look.

Last updated: 1:04 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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