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Katie Barnes works with Kevin Lopez as part of the ELL program.

The Western Dubuque School district is currently conducting studies to improve the school experience for non-English speakers through growing its English Language Learners program, (ELL).

Dan Wendler, the principal of Cascade Elementary and the ELL Coordinator for the district, explained the program.

He said, “English Language Learners is for our students who come to us where maybe English isn’t their first language. For many of the students in our district, their native language is Spanish, but we also have different languages. What we’re doing is trying to support them while we teach them English so they can be successful in both languages.”

Western Dubuque is the largest district in square miles in the state of Iowa, with many of its schools welcoming new students with non-English backgrounds. According to Wendler, almost all of these schools have ELL programs.

“We’re looking at our entire program,” he said. “We have ELL at Cascade Elementary, Cascade High school, Dyersville Elementary, Farley Elementary, Drexler Middle School and Western Dubuque High School. Most of the schools except for Peosta and Epworth have ELL programs, so this is a district-wide initiative.”

Of particular importance to Wendler is further enhancing the experience for students who speak little to no English at all.

He said, “District-wide, we have many students who come to us who we call ‘newcomers’. They come in and they know very little if any English. Regardless of whether they come in as an 11th grader or a second grader, our first job is to help them to communicate in our language and to help them learn some English. That’s a big piece of what we’re exploring with this self-exploration of what’s the best way to serve newcomers as a district.”

According to Wendler, this isn’t a case of a faulty system that needs to be fixed, but rather the continued improvement of an already excellent program that’s proved very effective in helping non-English speaking students adapt to new environments.

“We feel we have a very strong program,” said Wendler. “We have four ELL teachers in the district. We have four ELL interpreters who are primarily Spanish-speaking, so for any of our newcomers who have a hard time accessing the English language so they can learn in the classroom, the interpreters will go into the class to help them.”

One of the major reasons for the program’s past success is the dedication of its teachers: Stephanie Rickels at Farley Elementary, Sarah Palmer at Cascade Elementary and Dyersville Elementary, Katie Barnes at Cascade Jr/Sr. High School and Laura Scherbring at Drexler Middle School and Western Dubuque High School.

Wendler said, “We have four incredibly passionate teachers; they go above and beyond for the kids they serve. They’re a big part of why we have a strong program, and they’re also willing to take a look at what we do and figure out how to get even better so we can serve our students better.”

Every year, the ELL program submits an LAU plan to the state. One part of this process is self-reflection on things that could improve. This year, they plan to visit, learn and compare notes with Clear Creek-Amana and Mason City school districts. These districts were chosen due to their similarity to Western Dubuque in the number of students enrolled, the degree of diversity and school size.

“We reached out to two school districts that look like us and have scored very well on the Elpa-21 test we use,” said Wendler. “We want to talk to them and ask them some questions about what their program looks like and how they support newcomers.”

Two topics of interest for improvement in the ELL program are how to best handle the vast distance of the district, as well as ways to improve results in the writing component of the Elpa-21 test scores.

Wendler said, “Both of these districts we’re talking to do really well in writing, so we want to know what recourses they use and how they go about teaching it, because it’s an area we think we can show some growth in. Our hope is that we talk to them and get some new ideas, pick up things that we can try to improve our program. Another big piece of this is to hopefully validate that what we’re already doing is really good.”