Joya Breems — Staff Writer
Josine Salazar’s third-grade classroom at Kinsey Elementary is adorned with colorful decorations—numbers and letters on the wall and bookshelves spilling over with books. On her desk is a blue sheet with a blank for parents’ signatures: double-sided to go home with her students. Any document Salazar sends home is double-sided: one side English, one side Spanish.
In her class of twenty students, seven don’t speak English at home. Some years her classroom contains newcomers or students in their first year of school in the U.S. after arriving from other countries, including Mexico and Guatemala.
“For some, it’s the first school they’ve ever been to,” Salazar said.
This year, she has Spanish students that are semi-fluent conversationally but still struggle with English academic language.
“They spend their first year just surviving,” Salazar said.
Jessica Hernandez Vargas is a Dordt University education major, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking home. She attended school in the Sioux Center Public School district.
“I felt like I lacked English,” Vargas said. “I could speak well but I didn’t have academic language, my peers would use new words that I’ve never heard before in my life.”
Vargas’ experience and Salazar’s classroom are part of a county-wide trend. In the past ten years, Sioux County has seen an increase of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. As of 2021, 11 percent of Sioux County’s population is Hispanic, according to data from the Census Bureau.
At Kinsey, 180 English Language Learners (ELL) make up 29 percent of the student body. Kinsey has four English Second Language (ESL) staff and a building translator. ELLs spend several class periods a day on language acquisition with the ESL staff, but it still falls on homeroom teachers to teach academics like learning letters and numbers. Since Salazar aught ESL before starting at Kinsey, the administration often places first-year English language learners in her class.
Spanish-speaking students may receive a different type of support at home than their English-speaking counterparts. For one, the student’s parents might not be able to read, speak or write in English or Spanish. Salazar has one student whose parents are illiterate in English and Spanish. If she sends papers home with those students, a school translator calls to explain the documents to the parent. Vargas’ mother attended school until the fifth grade.
“I felt like a burden asking my mom for help with math because she didn’t know math either,” Vargas said.
Mary Beth Pollema is an education professor at Dordt, and her dissertation work is on Latino Perspectives on Family Engagement in Education.
“English-speaking families often equate education with what happens at school, while Hispanic families tend to view education as the training that happens both at school and at home,” Pollema said. “[Hispanic families] may see the roles that teachers and parents play in education as more distinct; the teachers promote academic development, and the parents emphasize character development in the home. They are fostering qualities such as respect, work ethic, humility, as a way of supporting their children to be successful in the school community.”
Another difference is that American culture is often individualistic and achievement-oriented, while many Latino immigrants come from collectivistic cultures that are more communitybased.
Pollema said U.S. school systems are often built on competitive individualism, and that “doesn’t always jive well with families that come from collectivistic cultures.”
Salazar’s non-English students tend to perform the lowest academically.
“There is a barrier when language proficiency is low, they don’t have full access to the content being taught,” Pollema said.
Statewide, Hispanic students scored on average 17 points lower on a third-grade level reading proficiency test analyzed by the Iowa Department of Education.
Vargas said many of her friends would skip class on state test days because they didn’t feel comfortable with the English language.
“You’re being tested on English, not actual knowledge,” Vargas said.
Pollema encourages the majority culture not to create a deficit mindset toward ELL students, but works to reframe the challenge.
“Hispanic families have different lived experiences and, therefore, face different barriers to success as compared to majority culture families,” Pollema said. “We can promote partnerships between the school and home to ensure that each child is supported according to their own unique needs and strengths.”
Salazar encourages her Hispanic students to improve their English by reading to their parents or siblings at home.
“Instead of feeling defeated by not knowing English, I want [my students] to see their bilingualism as a strength,” Salazar said.