Watford City Teachers Break Down Language Barriers

Children from 20 foreign countries and all 50 states have enrolled in Watford City's Elementary School in the past three years.

The students come to North Dakota with families who moved here for jobs in the oil business.

Educating kids whose primary language is Spanish, Chinese or Arabic can be challenging.

The language proficiency of students in Selam Ahmed's English Language classroom are dependent on their country of origin.

Three years ago there were 354 kids in the Watford City school; those numbers have tripled to 850, making it the second largest elementary school in the state.

Ahmed says he has 80 students enrolled in the English Language program. "We weren't expecting these numbers at the beginning of the year. We are in the process of hiring more EL teachers and more aids to help with these EL kids," he explained.

Ahmed is from Kurdistan. He says kids whose primary language is Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Kurdish or Hindi need to become proficient in English before they can advance in other subjects.

Every classroom teacher handles the language barrier differently depending on the age of the student.

Maria Brock-Jones teaches kindergarten and says diversity brings challenges and benefits to her classroom.

"At first it was difficult because they all learn differently, and even more so when they are from a household of a different culture, but in the end I think it makes us stronger," said Brock-Jones.

Brittany Roos teaches fourth grade and says she spends extra time with students who are struggling with English.

"I have to slow down what I'm doing and walk around more so that I can visually show them and talk them through lessons to integrate what we are doing," said Roos.

Shaheer Kanwar came to North Dakota from Pakistan and he says after several months of hard work he's comfortable speaking his second language.

Kanwar said, "We work on adverbs, conjunctions, compound sentences and subject predicate, nouns, all of that."

Patience is a virtue that's vital in communicating with foreign language students. Principal Brad Foss says the internet is another source teachers use when all else fails.

"Google Translate is a great tool to use when we don't understand what they're doing or saying," said Foss.

Foss says if the oil boom continues as expected, his student population could double in the next 10 years, creating a cultural community of global proportions.

Turtle Mountain Community Elementary School is the largest elementary school in the state. It has 844 students, 25 more than Watford City.