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West End Elementary students speak many languages, but principal says it's a challenge not a problem

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The wide range of cultures represented at West End Elementary is a blessing, according to Principal Buffi Murphy.

Teachers there may encounter students speaking Spanish, Japanese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Chinese, Gujarati and Hindi.

The breakdown is 81 Spanish students, five Japanese and one each of the rest. This is the highest number of different languages at any Rome City School, Murphy said.

Teachers at the school rise to the challenge of working with the students, Murphy said.

“Our Access scores go up and are measured on our College and Career Ready Performance Index,” she said. “We want to make sure we meet our students’ needs.”

Access scores are English language proficiency assessments for English Language Learners — or ELL. The tests are given to students in ELL classes to see how they are grasping the language. Tests help teachers know when the students are ready to stop taking ELL classes, as well.

“We use whatever resources we have,” Murphy said. “Technology is a gift to us, because we have programs that will allow the students to type in what they hear in class and translate. It makes connections happen.”

The school also hosts multiple parent nights so that the families of the ELL students can come in and learn concepts in classes they might not immediately understand.

“Developing a student’s concrete understanding of what you are teaching is the biggest challenge,” Murphy said. “Especially with certain vocabulary words.

For example, “rose” can mean a flower, but it can also be the past of “rise.” Slang phrases can also pose a challenge.”

One teacher who is fluent in Spanish helps with the translation for students. Fourth-grade math and science teacher Stephen Foster, a new teacher this year, grew up with a grandmother in Costa Rica. When he visited her, he learned conversational Spanish, which he fine-tuned during his time as a student at Berry College.

Foster now manages to communicate with students in his classes if they need. “I always request they respond to me in English,” he said. “However, if I can help them by explaining the concept to them first in Spanish, it can get them to understand more quickly.”

Speaking to his Spanish-speaking students in their native language also benefits the other students, he said. “I have English-speaking students tell me ‘Hey, Mr. Foster, I got some of that,’” he said, laughing. “It helps them become more familiar with a foreign language.”

ELL teacher Rebecca Sidwell said the best way to teach ELL students is through creativity.

“You have to think outside the box and find the best way to show each child,” she said. “You want the children to really understand and not just regurgitate the answer.”

Murphy said she thinks the international atmosphere at the school is beneficial for all. “In the end, you have students who are fluent in two languages and other students who get to experience other cultures first-hand,” she said. “I feel like it means a bright future for our kids.”