Program turns language barrier mountain into molehill |

Program turns language barrier mountain into molehill

Suzie Romig
RFSD Public Information Officer

When she walked into her first day of classes at Basalt High School more than two years ago, Paloma Torres was “terrified.”

“I didn’t want to come to school. I thought, who would I talk to, who would be my friends,” Torres said.

Now a senior with a great grasp of her second language of English, Torres is outgoing and talkative. She has a 4.0 grade point average and is ranked first in her class. After taking basic English in junior high in her home country of Mexico, she poured her attention into English Language Learner classes at Basalt and finished the program early.

She is enrolled in one class at Colorado Mountain College in Aspen and plans to finish her associate’s degree. After a four-year degree, she plans to try for law school to become a public defender.

Torres is just one of many success stories of students in the English as a second language programs in the Roaring Fork School District. Teachers and administrators say they see results every day, whether it is in improving Colorado State Assessment Program scores or in students who blossom to become group leaders and council officers.

“The parents and the students are telling us they see it as a very excellent program,” said Carmen Montgomery, ELL teacher at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale. “They feel the teachers in the schools are very responsive to the children’s needs. Our CSAP scores give us some hard evidence that what we are doing is working.”

“CSAP tests are not very sensitive to changes in our students’ language abilities because they are created for native English speakers,” noted Sharon Moya, ELL teacher at Basalt High. “Nevertheless our Latino population is showing very significant improvements each year.”

Judy Haptonstall, RFSD assistant superintendent, explained: “With an increased focus on reading and writing in English, an extremely talented and dedicated ELL staff, and new programs for our ELL students, we are seeing some dramatic gains for students in their test scores.”

ELL student success “is not just an academic thing,” Montgomery said.

“There are a lot of things that are harder to measure. Children come here and they suddenly arrive in a new country, isolated and afraid. The language barrier seems insurmountable,” Montgomery said. “Generally within 18 months you see the same students who you barely recognized from when they first arrived because they have confidence and they are participating with their peers like they have always been here.

“Once they feel that, they are able to tackle the academics with much more rigor. By the end of the second year (of ELL) it’s just amazing to see what they are able to do. After the third year, there is a very smooth segue, and they have minimal participation in ELL.”

“As a district we have just become more aware about what the needs are, how to serve our population and how to be more equitable in the education of our second-language students,” Moya explained.

Each high school in the district now has a Latino youth service club, such as the active Los Companeros at Roaring Fork and the 3-year old Bilingual Forum at Basalt High. At Glenwood Springs High School, the Estudiantes Latinos Americanos Unidos formed this year. The students started the annual Latino Youth Summit, perform service work, raise money for scholarships and sponsor special events.

To receive a weekly e-mailed “Community Update” or for RFSD questions, call 384-6000 or e-mail

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