Friday, October 22, 2021

Reaching Out to Embrace Uniqueness in Languages and Cultures in Collier County

Ruminations From the Rock

Photos by Jory Westberry | Students representing the 34 languages with their flags pose for a photo after the program.

It’s no secret that the Collier County School District is the 115th largest in the United States, of more than 14,000 districts. Oh, wait, you didn’t know that? There are 48,333 students being educated in Collier County, roughly the area of Connecticut, covering 2,300 square miles give or take a few. 

More than 46% of our students in K-12, live in non-English homes where English is not the first language and sometimes not spoken at all. That percentage rises with the age group from Pre-K to 3rd grade to 56%. This group is not only learning to speak English, but to read English.

English is not the first language for nearly 16% of our students and there are 7,500 K-12 students in our English Language Learners Program, all learning to be proficient in English. These students speak 104 different heritage languages and originate from 76 different countries. There are 20,600 students whose home language is Spanish; 21,750 whose home language is English; 3,290 whose home language is Haitian Creole; and 2,600 with “other home languages.”

Surprising, isn’t it? Shocking is more like it! It’s a tribute to our 3,200 teachers, 5,500 volunteers and 7,000 employees all working toward providing exceptional educational opportunities to engage and motivate each student to achieve success.

Our schools are very much aware of the challenges and teachers are trained in English Language Learners (ELL) strategies for optimal comprehension. There are district experts that contribute training and support, and in some cases, have to search far and wide to locate translators for the more unique languages and dialects. However, despite the challenges, there are schools that embrace the diversity and celebrate their students in unique ways.

Pelican Marsh Elementary (PME) Principal, Dr. Susan Barcellino and ELL Immersion Teacher, Kathleen Lawler put their heads together and assembled the “Unique to be Me at PME” Committee of Melissa Alamo, Assistant Principal; Allie White, Primary IBI Teacher; Kelle Hampton, PME Parent; and Robyn Cassilly, Reading Coach. Together they planned a celebration of the 34 different languages represented in their school for October 24th.

The committee invited all the Pelican Marsh families to the event and they responded enthusiastically. Dr. Barcellino introduced the celebration. “At this school, we know that our sense of community is what makes us strong, but it is not just our sameness that connects us. The celebration of our differences also powerfully connects us. We appreciate the ways our unique heritages bring us together. While we teach your children every day, we are also learning from them. We want to use what we are learning to make us a stronger, more connected place to learn.”

Music teacher, John Davis, worked on a song with all the students to learn to say “Hello” in the 34 languages at PME and the pride in their “Hellos” was a rousing success to the audience, especially those of us who might know about five!

“Our mission is to help our students be proud of their uniqueness and celebrate the ways we support and learn from each other. In March, we will be recognizing the abilities in our school which include Down syndrome, autism, gifted and many others,” said Kathleen Lawler, “Ultimately we want our students to take the understanding and compassion they practice at PME to middle and high school and beyond where it’s greatly needed.”

Ed. note: Most schools have concentrations of Spanish, Haitian Creole and a few other languages, but 34 is unusual in Collier County. 


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