Tucked away in the hills of rural North Carolina is Siler City Elementary, a dual-language school in which students spend half of their day learning in Spanish and the other half learning in English.
And yet, the school only has seven English Second Language (ESL) teachers — educators that specialize in teaching English to students that are non-native English speakers.
Out of 673 total students in the school, 418 are Latino, and 268 are ESL students. The ESL teacher-to-student ratio is 1-to-38.
ESL Teacher Angelica Binkowsky instructs all fourth-grade students in the program. In addition, she works with multiple grade levels for SCE’s intervention program, which involves dividing classrooms into small groups in order to provide a personalized learning experience.
“This year, my schedule is going to be crazy,” Binkowsky said. “In order to serve [all of the students]—because it’s the law that you have to give them services—my schedule is just crazy because I have interventions, I have planning, I have lunchtime and I have ESL services.”
ESL Teacher Michael Palmer said that the ESL teachers are stretched thin because they’re also used for dual language classes, which is not part of their official job description. His colleague strategizes by grouping students together by academic needs when she works with her grade level.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work,” Binkowsky said of her strategy to optimize time and space. “But you make it work.”
In the 1990s, several chicken processing plants opened in Siler City that were severely understaffed. The plants began recruiting in Mexico, which led to a large migration of Mexicans and workers from other parts of Latin America to Siler City. In the early 2000s, these plants shut down, but the immigrants remained in the area, resulting in a high Latino population.
Gary Leonard, chairman of Chatham County’s Board of Education, said the board has difficulties keeping up with the population growth of the area.
“Driving to Siler City is difficult, you know,” Leonard said. “Greensboro, you’re looking at 30 minutes. Chapel Hill, you’re probably looking at 45.”
The board has implemented a monetary incentive program to make Chatham County an appealing location for teachers searching for jobs. County commissioners granted the board funds to add supplements to teacher salaries.
“For example, if you were a fifth-year teacher, you might get $2,500. That’s in addition to your state salary,” Leonard said. North Carolina teacher monthly teacher salaries can range anywhere from $3,500 to about $6,000, depending on years of experience and education level.
Although the distribution of teachers creates academic concern at SCE, another problem is the lack of ethnic representation for Latino students in the school. Of the 28 classroom teachers, 11 speak Spanish fluently.
ESL Teacher Alirio Estevez said that few Latino teachers are part of the school’s PTA. He, along with members of the school’s Community Outreach Committee, started a Latino Parents School in October of 2018.
“We realized that our Latino parents needed a lot of support in order to better help the kids,” Estevez said. “The parents want to support their children, but sometimes they don’t know how to do it. We decided we should start a program… to teach them how to help their children and empower them.”
Binkowsky, who identifies as Latina, acknowledged the lack of Latino representation in the school and said that she prioritizes developing relationships with her students because of it.
“For me,” she said, “rather than academic, on top… goes the relationship that you can have with the student. If you don’t have good rapport with the student, you can try everything, it’s not gonna work.”
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