Adult immigrants being trained to help students learn English

/ 9 February 2013 / eunice

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, February 9, 2013 – Anisa Amin moved to the U.S. from Somalia a decade ago, so she knows the challenges immigrants face. And she wants to help.

That’s why the Bloomington resident enrolled in a class offered by the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district that trains people like her to become teaching assistants. The three-month adult education course is designed to help bilingual adults obtain state certification to become teaching assistants, also called paraprofessionals.

“I like working with kids,” said Amin, who hopes to one day be a teacher. “I want to help other immigrants. I want to help children improve their language and learning.”

Burnsville developed the training program out of necessity after the district struggled to find bilingual employees to help teachers with the growing number of English language learners in their classrooms. Nearly a quarter of the district’s elementary students have limited English proficiency.

Kevin Avise, manager of the district’s school for adults, knew he had a large pool of potential applicants. All they needed was a little training to be qualified. The district’s adult education programs serve about 800 people a year, and 75 percent of them are learning English, he said.

“This seemed like a good way to get some of these students into a career pathway,” Avise said. “It helps them turn what might be seen as a deficit into a positive.”

Avise hired English instructor Stephen Hunt to develop the curriculum that trains adults to help young students overcome language and cultural barriers.

“A lot of these adult students want to give back to the community and help other immigrants,” Hunt said. “Their kids go to our schools, and some of them volunteer already. I think that is what gets them excited about it.”

Twenty-five students from countries around the globe enrolled in the course when it was introduced in September. Teaching the finer points of English is a top priority.

One morning this month, Hunt worked to help his 10 students understand figurative language, things like similes and metaphors. His tools were the Simon and Garfunkel songs “I Am a Rock” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” He threw in a Katy Perry song to appease the younger students.

“I need to boost their literacy skills and gear it toward what they will need in the classroom,” he said.

The Burnsville district plans to hire four bilingual paraprofessionals in the coming months and may add another two positions later, said Kathy Funston, district curriculum director. The jobs will be split between Somali and Spanish, the district’s two largest non-English native languages.

The new teaching assistants will rotate through district buildings as needed.

“We want to make our curriculum more accessible,” Funston said. “We always honor a student’s first language, but we don’t teach in another language. It’s a travesty to have students in the classroom who don’t understand a thing being said.”

Like many suburban districts, Burnsville has struggled to keep pace with the needs of its growing population of English language learners. The district launched a full review of its programs for those students last summer after a state review found deficiencies.

Funston is hopeful the new bilingual paraprofessionals could be part of the solution. “That’s why we are so excited about it,” she said. “Nobody else is doing it.”