Ashe ESL program among state’s best

By Adam Orr -

ASHE COUNTY-Stop and think about the subject you struggled with most in elementary or high school. Maybe it took you longer than others to understand the basics of chemistry or maybe the fundamentals of geometry escaped you.

Now imagine how much harder understanding those concepts would have been if you were trying to learn them in a foreign language.

That’s the reality for roughly 100 district students every year, according to Phil Howell, Ashe County School Assistant Superintendent of Testing, Accountability and Safety. Many are Hispanic students who have moved to the United States either temporarily or permanently with their parents.

“The goal is to get those kids who are ‘limited English proficient,’ to a point of comprehension and understanding, to help them be proficient in all subject areas,” Howell said. “Now that takes a lot of specialized, one-on-one help but it can be done.”

It’s an area that Ashe County Schools has excelled at in recent years, Howell said.

In 2015, the district was just one of seven out of the state’s 115 public school districts to meet all of its “limited English proficient’ testing targets. The only other districts to meet its goals last year include the Cleveland County, Rapid City, Haywood County, Person County, Elkin City and Mount Airy School Districts.

Cynthia Coldiron, who teaches English to non-native speakers at Westwood Elementary and Ashe County High School, helped start the district’s English as a Second Language program with Cindy Fowler nearly 15 years ago.

Coldiron described the ESL teaching process as more unconventional than other subject areas.

“It’s all over the place from year to year and sometimes you have to switch up what you’re doing in the middle of the year,” Coldiron said. “You have waves of ESL students that show up here – some years more than others – and I’d term it almost cyclical.”

She said she the program typically receives a large influx of Hispanic students from mid-October through mid-December.

“In a lot of cases their families work in agriculture, so they’ll start in Michigan come to North Carolina in the fall to work in the Christmas trees and then move on to Florida,” Coldiron said. “So with a lot of these kids we’ll see them transfer in and out of the district at roughly the same time each year. A lot come back year after year.”

But Coldiron said the program has worked with students who speak Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese, along with Tagalog, Romanian and Russian.

But no matter what a student’s native language might be, Coldiron said the process of teaching them English is similar. She said the district three ESL teachers pull students away from their classes for 45-90 minutes each day to work on content based instruction – think math skills or social studies concepts – in a small group setting.

“It’s not only about offered more individualized instruction,” Coldiron said. “Moving kids from this big classroom setting to a smaller environment usually makes them feel safer. I have a Kindergarten student who won’t ask questions in her home class but when she comes in my room you can see she’s less afraid. Comfort is key in these situations.”

Coldiron said the availability and ease of use of technology has made her job progressively easier over the past 15 years.

“Technology like Chromebooks allow us to customize instruction for individual students,” Coldiron said. “And subscriptions to the Rosetta Stone system has been a tremendous help. Kids can use that system at school, but they can also log into that same setup at home each night if they have Internet access. That’s been a huge help to us.”

But Howell said he doesn’t need to rely only on the district’s testing data to see how much success the local ESL program has had. He only needs to look at the high school’s honor class rosters to see how much it’s paid off.

“A decade ago it was rare to see a Hispanic name show up in an honors class roster,” Howell said. “That’s completely different now. Not all of those kids are non-native speakers, but a lot of them are, and a lot of them worked with our ESL teachers when they were in elementary school. To me that’s the most important proof that this is working the way it should.”

Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or

By Adam Orr

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