ROCHESTER — When Manasa Yerriboyina started school, she spoke very little English. For years, she was hesitant to express herself at all for fear of being bullied for her Indian accent that she had up through the fifth grade.
All that has changed. Over the course of her school career, she went from being a student struggling to express herself in English to objectively being one of the most well-spoken students in the entire nation.
This year she became the first RPS student to have qualified twice nationally, once in both speech and debate. On top of that, she’s the No. 1 speech competitor in Minnesota for poetry interpretation and ranks No. 15 in the nation for program oral interpretation.
“I was that little girl from India who didn’t know how to speak English,” she said. “It’s completely mind blowing how much I’ve grown as a person and how much support I’ve received.”
While Yerriboyina is a remarkable case, she’s just one of a multitude going through the school system learning English as a second language. To help those students, Rochester Public Schools has crafted a web of resources to support its non-native English speakers. The district also works to help students hold onto their native languages and cultures.
RPS supports nearly 1,700 students who receive English-Language services as of 2023, just under 10% of the entire student population. Together, those come to the district speaking nearly 100 different languages, ranging from the well-known to the obscure.
Scholars estimate there are between 6,000 and 7,000 languages worldwide, meaning roughly 1.5% of the languages spoken in the world are represented within its public school system.
Because of that large demographic, Rochester Public Schools has crafted a web of resources to support its non-native English speakers: interpreters, mentors, co-taught classes and more.
But those resources are only part of the story. The goal is not just to teach students English, however important that may be for their futures. Rather, it’s to learn English while retaining and celebrating their native languages, cultures and identities.
“Just because they don’t have the words to tell you everything doesn’t mean that they’re not a deep thinker, it doesn’t mean that they’re not creative,” John Adams Middle School teacher Megan Beatty said. “They, in many ways, are almost stronger because of the flexibility of having two languages to pull from. You just might not see it yet.”
Multilingual students are categorized into six groups based on their English proficiency. Level 1 would be for students beginning to learn English, while level six represents those with near-native abilities. As of February, there were 203 students in level one, 348 students in level 2, 633 students in level 3, 525 students in level 4, and 117 students in level 5.
The district tests the students every year on their reading, writing, listening and speaking. The district “graduates” students from English language services when they test at a 4.5 level. They receive different amounts of support based on what level they are categorized as.
That means there are more non-native English speakers in the district than those who specifically receive English-language support.
One of the things changing is the very way the district classifies students. They used to be called EL students, which stood for English learners. Now, however, there is a push to refer to them as ML, or multilingual, students. The distinction removes the emphasis that learning English is the sole purpose in favor of recognizing the value of the totality of the languages with which students operate.
For the average monolingual American speaker, it may be hard to understand the linguistic complexity of some of the students coming to Rochester. For John Marshall senior Ariat Okach, English is the fourth language she’s learned. She ranks her languages as Dha-amywaa, Kiswahili, Somali, and English. She’s also learning French.
She said her accent sometimes makes it hard for people to understand her. Still, Okach wants people to know that while multilingual students may have difficulty expressing their thoughts, they understand more than it may seem.
“Sometimes whatever you say, you know that they won’t understand, so you don’t say much,” Okach said.
Odila Yangya is another John Marshall senior who has a command of a myriad of languages: Kiswahili, French, English, and her native Kibembe. In addition to all the formal support she received from the school system, sometimes she would get help from other students when she first started school in Rochester.
The district’s efforts to breach language barriers goes beyond students in the classrooms. School Board member Jess Garcia has been adamant about increasing communication to the non-English speaking communities in Rochester. Whenever there’s a survey, she advocates it be translated into a handful of languages. Whenever there’s important updates, she asks the same thing.
At a February school board meeting, RPS Multilingual Coordinator Natalia Benjamin put RPS board members and cabinet members through an exercise that shows how difficult communication can be for non-native English speakers. Benjamin handed out a piece of paper to everyone and started giving instructions in French. She didn’t explain what the project was going to be. She just started speaking.
Using hand gestures and step-by-step pictures on a slide show, she walked the group through the process of making a paper hat. For a simple task, the group got to feel the frustration that comes with following instructions they couldn’t explicitly understand.
The exercise also highlighted a concept Benjamin has emphasized about the importance of allowing students to learn with the totality of their language abilities.
“Their access to knowledge goes beyond just what they can access in English,” Benjamin said about multilingual learners. “If we built a classroom environment where English was the only way to do anything, we’re already denying them part of the knowledge base that they have, and we’re even denying part of how they interact with the world.”
Although the exercise with the paper hats may have provided some basic context for what it’s like to be a multilingual student, the reality is far more complex. Some students may come to Rochester as the children of Mayo Clinic physicians. Others may come as refugees from war-torn nations. Some students may be literate in their native languages. Others may not be. Some may have had formal education in their home countries. Others are just now learning how to learn in a formal way.
Those backgrounds impact students’ learning moving forward once they enter the classrooms in Rochester.
Bilu Solomon Debese, 15, has only been in the United States for the past 10 months since arriving from his native Ethiopia. There, he spoke the local language Tigrinya in addition to the national language of Amharic. When telling his story, he would routinely switch between speaking English and conversing with his father, Solomon Debese, in their native Tigrinya.
Bilu described laying on the ground as bombs fell, and the army coming to recruit his brothers for war. He talked about coming to Minnesota and seeing snow and being warned about the cold.
His father, Solomon, explained how there’s cultural differences to navigate on top of the language itself.
“The language barrier makes him work hard,” Bilu’s father said. “A good person is one who’s shy (in Ethiopia). Here, a kid will tell you what he wants.”
Language and identity often come tightly intertwined, making it difficult to sort out when you’re young. Twelve-year-old Andrea Vera is growing up speaking both Spanish and English.
She said she used to feel embarrassed for speaking Spanish at school. On the flip side, she said some people get bullied if they’re Hispanic and don’t speak Spanish. She said she’s come to realize that she shouldn’t feel bad about speaking whatever language she needs to.
“Don’t be embarrassed to speak it,” Vera said. “If you didn’t learn it, it’s OK. You can learn it when you’re older.”
When walking into the school district’s central offices, there are signs above each of the doors: “Communications,” “Superintendent,” and, among others, “Bilingual Services.” In that room, the district has a small army of interpreters working to translate written documents into a host of other languages and interacting with families on the phone.
Depending on the situation, the interpreters often find themselves as the first point of contact for the student or the students’ families.
“We’re their voice,” said Susana Boggs, a Spanish interpreter for RPS. “They don’t know how the system works. They don’t know what to say. They don’t know how to say it.”
She comes from a very multilingual background, the child of a Lao family who grew up in Argentina before moving to the United States.
The largest non-English languages spoken in Rochester Public Schools are Spanish, at 832 students; Somali, at 456 students; Arabic, at 244 students; and Cambodian (Khmer) at 231 students. And for the most part, the bilingual staff reflects those larger linguistic demographics.
Being the year 2023, the district doesn’t just rely on human interpreters. It has access to a program called “Talking Points,” which allows teachers and staff members to type in English, and the platform will translate the message so that the recipient can read it in their own language.
Lincoln K-8 Teacher Jason Howes said Lincoln has had more than 40,000 exchanges with families on the Talking Points platform.
John Adams multilingual teacher Megan Beatty said even if the automated program doesn’t know how to translate something itself, it will send the message to a human interpreter. Or, it will give the teacher a prompt that the message may need to be rewritten.
In a pinch, though, she’s also used Google Translate when she had a meeting with a family and the interpreter was busy elsewhere. So, they pulled out their phones and typed messages back and forth throughout the meeting.
Another feature of the ML program is something called “co-taught” classes, which is where a mainstream teacher and an ML teacher lead the class together. Unlike newcomer classes, co-taught classes can have non-ML students as well.
Multilingual teacher DeAnna Schleusner said the mainstream teacher will focus on teaching the core content, the multilingual teacher will work to adapt that material to students’ language abilities.
Beatty described the concept as well. “Their job is to make sure the content is taught; our job is to remove the language barrier so that the students are able to grasp the content.”
Leaders at various levels in the district say that even though the class is partly taught by an ML teacher, it still benefits the native English speakers in the classroom. They also say it helps the ML students to be in a mixed environment.
Students helping students
Some of the support systems in the district are coming from the students themselves. Joud Haj Sakor hadn’t even been out of high school a year when she proposed the idea of starting a mentorship program for multilingual learners. So far, the program, called Empowered To Succeed, has 17 mentors paired up with students.
The mentorship program is something she would have wanted to have when she arrived in the United States as a refugee from Syria. She said stepping out of the multilingual program and into mainstream classes was like going from one world to the next.
Echoing the thoughts of the interpreters in the district’s central office, Haj Sakor said it’s not just a challenge of learning English. There’s so much about the school system that students have to learn above and beyond the process of simply communicating with their words. What are AP classes? What are honors classes? What is prom?
Or, as the teacher DeAnna Schleusner pointed out, why do you have to wear green on March 17 in order to avoid getting pinched by your classmates?
It’s easy for native speakers to take a million different cultural traits for granted as being the norm. But for those just learning and adapting to their new landscape, it can turn into a minefield.
“We have amazing teachers, but they can only do so much,” Haj Sakor said.
Right now, the program is pairing mentors with high school students, but they have bigger plans for it. They want to expand it to more grade levels, and host workshops on topics like applying for college. They also would like to start a podcast where guest speakers can share their experiences.
The mentorship program is a more organized effort. There are students who lend a hand to their peers when the need arises. As an Arabic speaker, John Adams sixth-grader Janh Al Tameemi can help translate between teachers and fellow Arabic students when they don’t understand each other.
No matter how proficient students become in English, their native languages are still an integral part of who they are and where they came from. It’s an asset, Benjamin reiterated. Because of that, bilingual students are able to take a test to acquire “certificates and seals of biliteracy.” If they take that during their sophomore, junior or senior year, it can work as college credit.
In addition to college credit, Al Tameemi pointed out an obvious benefit of speaking more than one language. “You can get more opportunities to get a job,” the 11-year-old said.
Perhaps more than any other student, Yerriboyina has personified the journey of excelling in a linguistically unfamiliar environment. She grew up speaking Telugu with her family. When she started school, she had to find a way to communicate with her then-broken English.
Today, she’s nationally recognized for her speaking skills in English. As extraordinary as that may be, her story is notable for the fact that she hasn’t traded one language for the other. She’s nurtured both in tandem.
“Now, I kind of look back at it as a gift more than a curse,” Yerriboyina said about growing up as a multilingual student. “It allowed me to learn how to learn a language and develop my identity, but it also helped me look back at how important my culture and my native tongue are. I’m glad this is how my journey has gone.”