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More English Language Learners in ND

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Amera Issa excitedly raises her hand to answer almost every question her teacher asks. Amazing, considering the 8-year-old second-grader at Century Elementary in Grand Forks is new to the English language. Issa is a Somali Eng...

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Amera Issa excitedly raises her hand to answer almost every question her teacher asks.

Amazing, considering the 8-year-old second-grader at Century Elementary in Grand Forks is new to the English language.

Issa is a Somali English Language Learner and a refugee. Her family came here from Syria after a short stay in Atlanta, where she attended school for the first time. The 11 children in her family are spread out around the world but safe from the turmoil they once faced. One of her older sisters, Faiza, 17, is an ELL student at Grand Forks Red River High School.

Issa, 8, spends time in both regular and ELL classes throughout her day. She already speaks both Arabic and Somali and is one of several new ELL students in Grand Forks this year.

The ELL population across the United States has ballooned in the past several years. In 1990, one in 20 public school students in grades K-12 was an ELL student, according to American Educator magazine. The figure now is one in nine, growing from

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2 million to 5 million.

In Grand Forks, the number of ELL students has increased by about 40 from last year, to about 110, and growing.

"We're really feeling the growing pains in our city," said Century ELL teacher Carrie Kasowski. "We have an ELL bus that's packed full."

In many cases, the children are the only ones in the family who speak English. Families need to be educated on the U.S. culture and learn to acclimate themselves to society in a new place. Many of the children and families are just thankful to have survived the challenges they've faced - challenges most children here have never dreamed of.

In Kasowski's morning ELL class at Century, it's hard to tell that some of the students just started learning English.

"You begin with concepts," Kasowski said. "You use modeling and pictures. They begin to catch on, and it's another area where you're just amazed."

"You have to use plenty of pictures, graphs and visual aids," said Ivona Todorovic, an ELL teacher at Red River High School and South Middle School. "The vocabulary definitions are very simplified."

Students catch on to basic English much faster than their parents, often because they spend their time at school and around other English speakers.

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The bigger challenge is to learn academic English.

"Most of them don't have academic proficiency in their language, so it's hard to transfer that to English," Todorovic said. "I have to engage them and get them to step outside their comfort zones."

Other lessons are important, too.

In one of Todorovic's ELL classes at Red River, she teaches the students how to deal with conflict, to make appointments for their families and carry out other daily responsibilities that become theirs when they learn the English language.

"Families come to depend on the kids because they are the only ones who know English," Todorovic said. "Many of these kids are the first in their families to be educated."

In Mary Berglund's freshman English class at Red River this year, ELL students looked up English lyrics to their favorite songs and tried to understand their meanings.

"They come in with such amazingly different reading levels," Berglund said. "It's a struggle to try to find ways to keep kids interested in stories at their reading level. It's insulting to them to make them read second-grade material. They're such smart kids, and those books don't match their maturity levels."

Diwakar Dahal, an 18-year-old refugee from Nepal in his first year of school in Grand Forks, said he has no problems understanding the teachers at school, but the students are a different story. He and his sister, Rebecca, 15, did learn some British English in Nepal.

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"I can't keep up with the girls," he said, smiling.

Many ELL students have witnessed horrific incidents and struggled more in their lifetimes than most adults here. Many have lived in refugee camps.

"These kids have been through a lot," Todorovic said. "They've learned survival skills."

Todorovic was a refugee herself 14 years ago. She came here with her husband from Bosnia, graduated from UND and became a teacher.

"I think this is a wonderful community," Todorovic said of Grand Forks. "I couldn't have picked a better town to come to."

Trust with her students tends to build quickly since they know her background, she said.

"We were running from the bad things," she said of herself and her husband. "Just like these kids. The people are not aware of what's going on with them. It's not just crossing the barrier of language. It's everything else."

Said Rebecca Dahal: "In the refugee camp, there are many bad boys. My father is

still scared for me here. He says don't talk to strangers.

He's very worried."

Sixteen-year-old Niyonsaba Annociata, a refugee from Burundi, said her grandmother still is strict about where she goes and what she does, after living in unsafe refugee camps for years.

Todorovic must approach students carefully, she said, because some are running from their pasts and don't want to talk about them.

"When they come here and have freedom, it takes time to gain trust," she said. "It takes time and patience and lots of understanding."

When a new family comes to town, Lutheran Social Services, along with Kasowski and Todorovic, helps educate the family on such things as emergency services, weather alerts and dressing appropriately for the weather.

LSS worker Dawne Barwin said the agency tries to get the adults lined up with jobs within the first four months. The high school students often get part-time jobs, as well.

The students often need to learn self-confidence and to believe in themselves, Todorovic said.

"If we can make them do that," Todorovic said. "We've done half the job."

Issa and classmate Ernest Ntakirutimana, 10 and a refugee from Burundi, agreed that the hardest parts for them are going to a new school and eating the different kinds of food.

"I like hot dogs and hamburgers with pickles," Ntakirutimana said. "For Thanksgiving, I didn't eat any turkey. Just pickles."

"It's the dress," Diwakar said of the biggest change from his culture. "I've never seen this kind of dress. It's baggy and hip-hop."

Todorovic said teaching ELLs involves learning as well.

"You're not just a teacher when you're ELL," she said. "You wear so many hats: teacher, nurse, counselor, mother and everything else."

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

Sixteen-year-old Annociata wants to be a doctor and hopes she can go back to Burundi someday to help people there.

Several students strive to be doctors, while others want to be dentists, police officers or go into computer science.

"They all come here with dreams," Todorovic said. "They have big dreams."

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