Independence School District finds fluent approach to teaching English

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INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- In this multi-lingual, multi-national world and metro area, school districts face the growing challenge of mastering English, let alone mastering their other regular subjects.

Now the Independence School District is trying a new approach, and says it may have hit on something.

It's a weekday ritual; buses pull up in front of Nowlin after the middle school's students have started their classes. The buses loaded with elementary school kids rolling to Nowlin to master English as part of the district's "English Learner Program." In the past, teachers would travel to the students.

"We pull from grades one through five, elementary, ELL kids from throughout the district. And each day a different English proficiency level comes to the ELL center. So it's all five grades, each day of the week, with a different proficiency level," said coordinator Debbie Stidham.

Meaning the kids are mastering English at the same level, on this day level 5, the highest level of English proficiency.

"There's no excuses and not much copying going on because everybody's at the same level. So lessons are structured for success for each student, so there is something everybody can do. I love it," said teacher Ellen Brown.

Teachers say the kids are taking to the new approach, too.

“In the mornings, we like get this magazine and we have to, like, learn what we can learn in the magazines because there`s interesting stuff in it,” one student said. “And when we`re done learning, we have to pick a friend and tell `em what we learned."

It's a Show-Me State first of its kind program. In fact, Independence thinks it might be a national first.

“On paper, it looked like it should work. I talked to DESE to have them look at it and they said that it should work,” Stidham said. “Until you get those test results, we don`t really know, and absolutely it`s working. Our numbers are much higher than they ever were in the past.”

Four hundred-fifty five students are using the new approach, kids who speak 21 different primary languages. Most are born in the United States to parents who speak another language. The kids study math, science and history while becoming fluent in English.