72 learning English in Island schools | Among this year’s bilingual students are speakers of Japanese, Russian, Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Thai and Finnish

The ESL program on Mercer Island — now referred to as ELL for English Language Learners — is often overlooked; a modest footnote to the district’s trumpeted story of achievement. Yet the Island's 72 ELL students are well aware of the program’s strength and success. They are rewarded by it every day.

On Oct. 10, the entire staff of Island Park — home to the district’s elementary bilingual program — received professional training on the most recent ELL teaching methods. The workshop, part of Island Park’s Learning Improvement Day, was funded by $20,000 in Title III federal grant money. Mercer Island School District ELL coordinator and teacher Patricia Malatesta led the “Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol” training, which addressed bilingual teaching methods in the classroom.

The grant comes on the heels of an internal district review of the ELL program, which the district passed with flying colors. Sharon Gillaspie, former director of assessment and instruction, presented the report to the School Board last spring, pointing out that 100 percent of the Islands ELL students graduate from high school, pass the WASL exams with little trouble and are receptive to in-class help from paraprofessionals.

“The results speak for themselves. The kids do well in the program. All the kids go to college. They all pass the tests. The program’s been working very well,” said Associate Superintendent of Instructional Services Kathy Morrison.

Unlike most Washington public schools, ELL students who attend MISD are relatively proficient in English and academically competitive.

“We have very few level-one students — those who don’t speak any English. The majority come in with some English language knowledge and have had academic background in their own language,” Morrison said.

Malatesta, who has worked with bilingual students on Mercer Island for 20 years, echoed this point.

“Our students are as academically qualified — or more qualified — as MI students. It’s just that their English isn’t at the same level,” she said. “This is totally different from other public schools.”

Regardless, Island ELL students still benefit from one-on-one help in the classroom. Colloquial English, after all, is easier to grasp than academic English.

“We speak with the Anglo-Saxon language but write and read in Latin and Greek forms, so students sometimes struggle with this vocabulary,” Malatesta pointed out.

The bilingual coordinator is spread thin as an Island resource. Malatesta spends her weekdays dashing from one Island school to another, working in various classrooms at Island Park and West Mercer along with teaching a full ELL class at both Mercer Island High School and Islander Middle School. But the workload doesn’t seem to phase her, thanks to the support of her paraprofessionals — Anne Cameron and Sue Sheppard — and numerous teachers.

In the end, success comes down to the collaborative efforts of staff members.

“I have to commend our teachers. They welcome kids with open arms,” Morrison said. “If a teacher finds out a child’s spending all night on homework because of a difficulty with English, she gives different kinds of assignments.”

As required by state law, all ELL students must pass an English proficiency exam in order to test out of the program. The test is delivered each spring. Students must score in the 35-40th percentile in order to pass. Once they have graduated from ELL status, the students continue on without special English instruction. Yet they are not entirely without a safety net. Malatesta follows each ELL student until graduation, providing extra help when needed.

“I have a lot of discussion with teachers, and we provide accommodations for the students. They get extra time to complete tests and can use their own dictionaries,” she said. “Teachers have become quite adept at reading kids and knowing what they need. And the kids are good at advocating for themselves.”

Among this year’s 72 bilingual students are speakers of Japanese, Russian, Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Thai and Finnish. Many of the students spend only a few years in the United States, Malatesta said, as their parents are here on sabbatical or researching at the University of Washington. Others will graduate from MIHS and go on to American colleges.

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