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English is struggle for many children

46% rise in ethnic population intensifies problem in schools

The 10-year-old boy goes to class but says he doesn't know why.

He can't speak English. He thinks he's too dumb to learn, but he's certain of his future. He believes he'll end up in jail someday.

"It broke my heart, no matter how many times I tried to give him positives, he believed he was stupid," said Danell Mieure, the boy's fifth-grade teacher in Ogden's Edison Elementary School.

The 2000 Census numbers released Wednesday show Utah's ethnic population has grown by 46 percent in the past decade, and the impact of that is playing out in schools as both teachers and students battle language barriers.

Mieure, an English as a second language teacher, says she is a daily witness to the struggle by children who have to conquer not only basic subjects but the intricacies of new language.

"Too many times, they go through the early school years and they are lost because they do not understand the language," she said. "They can't keep up with the rest of the class, they feel like failures and they take that with them into high school, and by then, they're lost."

In the past decade, the influx of minorities into Utah classrooms has forced educators to have an increased awareness about those struggles and to have empathy.

"I don't think the population in general has any clue what these kids face when they come to school and they don't know the language," Mieure said.

At Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City, teacher Ted Zeitler says he can walk down the halls and hear 25 different languages being spoken.

He refuses, then, to use the term "English as a second language," because it is often a third or fourth language being learned.

"The biggest crisis facing Salt Lake City schools is the number of students whose primary languages are not English," Zeitler said. "One of your primary objectives as a teacher is to deliver comprehensible content. When you have students whose first language isn't English, you are teaching English while you are teaching everything — history, math and science."

Statewide, there are 40,000 Hispanic students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and 23,000 of those students do not speak English well enough to advance to the next grade level.

That translates into a struggle for not only the students but for administrators who have had to craft a new approach to education.

"We've known for at least five years that this pattern would increase the load and challenge for education, not only K through 12 but adult education," said Richard Gomez, coordinator of education equity for the state Board of Education.

There are waiting lists for English as a second language courses, particularly in the Salt Lake area, Gomez said.

"Contrary to popular belief that we have legislate it, by far the majority of Hispanic immigrants want to learn English," Gomez said.

School district superintendents in the state have been advised that finding and training bilingual teachers is a critical need. The census highlights that schools can no longer offer "segregated" language acquisition areas with students being taught in the hallways or separate areas because they don't have good enough language skills to be in mainstream classes.

It's critical that schools address this early because the dropout rate for secondary Hispanic students is between 35 to 40 percent, Gomez said.

"I have no reason to think it's any lower here," he said. "There needs to be a standardized approach statewide for schools to be as proactive as they can about this."