Bethel builds on strong English Learner program

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EL students at Spanaway Middle School use digital learning to enhance their education.

little over a decade ago, Bethel’s English Learner program consisted of just 165 students.

The program, which aims to bring English learners up to academic language proficiency, now has more than 1,000 participants from all over the globe.

“As we know, Bethel is growing as a whole, so I don’t see this slowing down. I see it continuing to grow and diversify. Over the past twelve years we’ve gone from speaking 13 languages to speaking over 35 different languages,” said Sonja Hemmerling, Bethel’s Director of Special Services.

The program has historically been known as ELL (English Language Learners), but the name officially changed to EL (English Learner) as part of 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act.

“Over the past twelve years we’ve gone from speaking 13 languages to speaking over 35 different languages.”

That growth has led to a giant shift in how our district runs the program. In its early years, EL students were taken from their neighborhood schools and bussed to separate schools to study English with fellow newcomers. Now, every school in the district offers an array of EL services.

“We don’t just provide one type of service for all students. Instead, we identify students’ needs individually and how we as a district can meet their needs,” said Sonia Nicholson, Bethel’s new Assistant Director of EL and Native American Programs.

Nicholson, who arrived in Bethel this summer after years leading the EL program in the Peninsula School District, has high hopes for the district’s future.

Bethel’s EL program is already strong, but the women leading the program believe it can get even more rigorous, creative and engaging for students.

“We can pull students out for an hour a day, but the reality is they’re in general education classes the majority of the day, so we really need to build that capacity with Gen Ed teachers,” Nicholson said.

And the district is well on its way toward that goal. Roughly 700 Bethel teachers have already been trained in EL strategies, and more than 200 have completed GLAD training, which gives them tools to promote language skills, academic achievement, and cross-cultural skills in their classroom, no matter the subject of study.

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Students in Thompson Elementary’s Dual Language Spanish Immersion program learn Spanish beginning in kindergarten.

Nicholson says getting more people involved with learning foreign languages and cultures will help all students, not just EL students. She points to popular programs like Thompson Elementary’s Dual Language Spanish Immersion, which teaches students in both English and Spanish as a way to develop stronger academic skills while also expanding cultural literacy for all students.

“In five years I would like to hear more people talk about language as an asset rather than a language barrier and really embrace our students for being very talented and speaking multiple languages at a young age,” Nicholson said.

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Helping kids learn is the driving force behind all we do in the Bethel School District.

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