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English language learners increasing in Dickinson schools

Press Photo by Katherine Grandstrand English Language Learner program coordinator Rebecca Andvick works at her desk after school on Thursday at Dickinson High School. ELL students at Dickinson Public Schools has increased to 103 who speak 10 different languages.

As people flock to North Dakota to take part in one of the biggest oil booms in U.S. history, regional traditions from across the country are making their way to the small prairie town founded by the railroad and built by the hands of European immigrants and their descendants.

A century ago, the English language was secondary to many of those immigrants.

As today’s oil boom attracts people from throughout the U.S. and the world, officials from Dickinson Public Schools say they see a similar trend with the children of men and women coming to help grow the city.

Participation in the school system’s English Language Learner program has increased to include 103 students who speak 10 different languages. The change reflects the diversifying population of a city tamed by immigrants from the Ukraine and Germans from Russia.

The district has added ELL teachers to accommodate the growing need for the program to teach English to students whose first language may be something else. The majority of ELL students in Dickinson — 84 percent — speak Spanish as their first language.

“The English language is one of the most difficult languages to learn,” said Rebecca Andvick, ELL coordinator for Dickinson Public Schools.

Before beginning ELL classes, students are evaluated for their proficiency in English, said Dorothy Martinson, the school system’s Title I coordinator.

“Every student who has another language spoken in their home needs to be screened,” Martinson said.

Students only need to stay in ELL until they can test out of the program with an overall score of 5 — a score of 6 means the student is fluent in English, Martinson said.

“It’s considered to be proficient when they understand academic English well enough to be successful in the classroom,” Martinson said. “It wouldn’t be the same as meaning that they would receive 100 percent on any test given in English.”

A student must score a 3.5 out of 6 in any given division of English fluency with an overall score of 5 before graduating from the program.

“There’s listening, speaking, writing, reading,” Martinson said. “They have to be kind of proficient in all the different areas of using.”

The number of ELL students has decreased statewide because students are testing out, said Karri Whipple, the South East Education Cooperative director of English Language Learning. She previously served as the assistant director of English Language Learning for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

“We’re getting better at how we identify our students and which students we assess according to the ELL definition,” Whipple said. “Our raw numbers have actually gone down quite a bit in the last few years.”

The most significant challenge non-English-speaking students face in the classroom is the language barrier, Andvick said.

“When you get into a classroom environment, we’re used to doing things a certain way in the United States,” Andvick said, “and a lot of different cultures, they have different adaptations.”

Students in classes with English language learners can find some benefits, Andvick said.

“Most of the students, especially in the primary schools, they love it,” Andvick said. “They just want to help and they want to try to learn the language — try to explain and help the students the best they can.”

The earlier a student begins ELL, the easier it is to understand another language, Whipple said.

“The lower grade levels tend to move more quickly,” Whipple said. “If we have a student that doesn’t come to the U.S. or start in an English-speaking school until middle school, they might stay in in our program maybe through high school.”

Students are allowed to stay in ELL as long as needed, Whipple said.

In the past, Spanish was not the most prevalent language spoken by ELL students, Whipple said.

“We had a lot of students who were reporting some influence of a language other than English and our population a few years back was more than half Native American ELL,” Whipple said, who added that Native Americans now comprise about 30 percent of students within the state’s ELL programs.

Despite common misconception, it’s not best to require non-English speaking parents to speak English at home.

“If the parents aren’t proficient at English then the level of language that they’re practicing at home is not a proficient English,” Whipple said. “They’re not the rich, higher-level conversations that we want to be having with kids.”

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
(701) 456-1206