YSD Teacher Talks About The English Learner Program

Pam Kallis of the Yankton School District works with non-English-speaking students as part of the district’s English Learner program.

A Yankton School District teacher is helping non-English-speaking children learn English so they can succeed academically as they and their families make a home in Yankton.

Pam Kallis was born in Howells, Nebraska, to a German family. In high school, she started studying Spanish, which she grew to love and excelled in. Her competence in Spanish led Kallis to travel to Mexico, Chile and Spain. She graduated from Wayne State College in Nebraska with a Bachelor of Arts in Education in 1984, which allowed her to teach math and Spanish; until 2016 Kallis was primarily a Spanish teacher. She taught in Nebraska and Colorado, but and came to the Yankton School District (YSD) in 1995 where she has been a teacher ever since.

In 2016, Kallis became a part of the YSD’s English Learner Program (EL), in which she helps students of all ages that are new to the U.S. and YSD to learn English.

Kallis took time to talk to the Press & Dakotan about the English Learner (EL) program at YSD.

Where did the idea for the EL program come from?

The idea for the English Learner program in Yankton comes from the administration seeking a way to best serve the needs of all students. Federal law also requires that we provide programs to teach students English, but Dr. (Wayne) Kindle and Kathy Wagner always strive to insure that YSD provide opportunities for all learners. In the fall of 2014, Yankton High School had four non-English students enroll. When I say “non-English,” I mean NO English. They were all Spanish speakers and so they were placed into my Spanish class hoping that they would pick up some English through vocabulary lists and activities. This grew into these students being placed into my study hall as well. Dr. (Jennifer) Johnke approached me with concerns that we were not fully meeting the needs of these students, and I did some research and learned that there were classes being offered at Dakota Wesleyan so that practicing teachers could earn an endorsement in English as a New Language (ENL). I signed up as quickly as I could. The elementary schools had been using para-professionals to assist with English Learning. Rovelyn Whisler and Lelia Elder, along with those before them, had been doing a great job at the elementary levels, but there was a need at the high school level.

About how many students are in the program today?

Currently, there are 52 students that have been identified as English Learners in YSD. Mrs. Sarah Brandt and I split the duties of serving them. Kathy Wagner, the director of Student Services, oversees all of our work. Brandt serves the high school, the middle school and Stewart and Webster schools. Stewart and Webster have quite small EL populations. At middle school, they have created an English Language Development class and Brandt is doing wonders with moving those students toward academic readiness in language.

My schedule is split between three schools. The first two hours of the morning, I teach Algebra 1 at the high school. This is regular, mainstream Algebra 1. I have had, and continue to have, ELs in my Algebra class and I use lots of language strategies when teaching that class. Ask my students and they will tell you that in my Algebra class there is a lot of talking to your partner about math. After Algebra, I come to Lincoln Elementary, which has the highest concentration of ELs in the elementary setting. As a matter of fact, we have a new kindergarten student that started last week. She has lived in the U.S. for three weeks and is adjusting very well. Her teacher, Kayla Loecker, along with a dozen other teachers, have attended workshops that I have presented that help prepare them for the challenges of ELs in the classroom. I often feel as though classroom teachers do the biggest burden of the work because they spend the most time with the students. The staff of YSD should be commended for all the work they do trying to insure that every student reach their potential. The last part of the day, I spend at Beadle School.

How does the YSD identify students that would benefit from the EL Program?

Identifying students is largely dictated by federal and state law. When new students register, they are given a Home Language Survey that asks about languages spoken at home. If anything other than English is indicated, we must give them a test to see at what level they can perform academic English. The school counselors administer this. It is published by WIDA, (which) is a large consortium in the U.S. that allows states and local school districts a standard way to measure the progress of students learning English. State law also requires that we test every EL in late February to insure that they are progressing in language development.

What has the reaction been to the program?

The reaction I have gotten from teachers and counselors is exactly what I would expect: Yankton has outstanding teachers that want only the best for their students. All of them have welcomed me and see me as a support allowing them to better reach every child in their class. Sometimes, I take students out of the room to work one on one; sometimes, I sit with the child in the class; and sometimes there is a co-teaching approach where we share responsibilities to teach the class together. Ludwig Wittengenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” I believe that is true for all students. So when I have the opportunity to co-teach, I feel like I am empowering all students.

What impact do you see from the program on EL students and their families?

The impact on families has been huge. Both Sarah Brandt and I are able to communicate in Spanish. We interpret for our families all the time. Even if our families are not Spanish-speaking, we work to help them. No child can learn if their basic needs are not met, so we occasionally assist with finding housing and transportation to school.  Jennifer Powell with Systems of Care and Nakita Maddox at Cornerstones have been great assets.  We work really hard on building family engagement with the schools. We interpret at conferences and translate notes (that are sent) home. Like every teacher in Yankton, we want the families to play an important role in the education of the children. Our families know that we are there to welcome them and support them as they begin to navigate the U.S. school system.

The families that we have in Yankton are good, solid families that are here because there are opportunities to work and raise a family — the exact reason that I moved here in 1995. Often, I hear people say, “If they’re going to live here they’ve got to speak English.” I couldn’t agree more and that is why it seems so imperative that I help them in that journey. Learning language is a long, hard process and I won’t give up on my students. Many of them want to make Yankton a permanent home, and I want to insure that they are well equipped to be outstanding citizens of the community.

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