More than a dozen kindergartners twisted their mouths and noses in repulsion after whiffing a sliced white onion.
“How does that SMELL?” Beth Thomas, the teacher leading the classroom, asked the squirming students. “Does that smell GOOD or BAD?”
A few minutes later, Thomas prepared popcorn and tortilla chips for the students to teach words like “popping” and “crackle” to the young children learning English for the first time.
“The Five Senses” were the topic that early morning at Broadmoor Elementary School where about 80 students from more than 40 countries are enrolled in the Lafayette Parish School System’s summer enrichment program for English as a Second Language students.
More than 1,600 K-12 students last year were eligible for ESL services — about 5 percent of the district’s 30,000 students — and school officials say the need keeps rising.
About 250 new students were enrolled into the K-12 program six years ago. The number has increased with 475 new enrollments last year.
The steady increases prompted the school district to expand its ESL program in time for the next school year, even as an economic slump paired with the rerouting of millions in tax dollars to the district’s three charter schools, strained the budget.
The school system began its English as a Second Language program in 1990 with a federal grant that paid for one teacher, and the program has been expanding since and includes services for adult English learners.
Some of the ESL program is funded by federal Title III dollars, which fund the entire summer enrichment program for young students who speak little or no English.
Thomas works for Children’s Museum of Acadiana, which partnered with the district to provide hands-on lessons every Tuesday and Thursday during the four-week program held this month.
The program provides a learning boost for students immersed in the district’s English-speaking classrooms, learning the same lessons and taking the same tests as their native-speaking peers — yet without a mastery of the language.
Young students attending summer enrichment classes spend five hours a weekday using computer programs, creating art and engaging in team projects — cleaning out a neglected courtyard to make room for a fairy garden, for example — to learn the English language.
The summer schedule allows a departure from the usual rigor of an average school-year schedule, said Janie Ellison, the school system’s ESL coordinator.
“It’s true enrichment,” Ellison said.
Laura Mesa moved from Mexico to Louisiana in 2000 as an 8-year-old, and she learned English through the district’s ESL program.
Mesa, who’s now in her early 20s and among eight bilingual assistants working in the summer enrichment program, said it took her about six months to learn the language.
But the transition is not as easy for all students, who often go through a shy and silent period when they’re new to the area and unsettled in the classroom, Mesa said.
“Some don’t want the language. They say they’ll be going back to their home country,” Mesa said.
And in some households — like Mesa’s, whose early English lessons were boosted when her dad enlisted her on errands as his translator — the student often becomes the teacher for their families, she said.
Ellison said more U.S.-born students have been entering the ESL program in recent years.
“They’re coming from an environment where they’re from here but they still don’t have English,” she said.
More than two-thirds of the district’s ESL students are native Spanish speakers, Ellison said, with native Arabic and Vietnamese speakers the next most common.
Most of the parish’s ESL programs are located in central Lafayette and west Lafayette Parish, around Duson and Scott, where student populations show the highest concentration of ESL needs, Ellison said.
Five new ESL teachers budgeted for the coming school year will allow the district to expand its services from six to 10 schools. Two elementary ESL programs were also added in north and south Lafayette Parish towns, Carencro and Broussard.
The expansion will accommodate students who are now bused across the parish to attend an out-of-zone school for English classes, allowing them instruction closer to home.
The public school system also provides services for adult ESL students from around Acadiana.
Thomas, the Children’s Museum teacher, teaches young students on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and on those nights, she’s at the South Louisiana Community College campus teaching the English language to dozens of adults.
More than 275 adult students enrolled in the parish school system’s ESL courses last year, which will soon be administered by the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. Courses are free, and starting this fall, the program will include courses for students working toward their U.S. citizenship.
Only about half of the students who enrolled in the courses last year received more than 50 hours of instruction, a benchmark that comes with a test to measure proficiency, said Ginger Rabalais, academic education specialist for the Lafayette Parish School System’s adult education program.
It’s often difficult to retain adult students, who may be working multiple jobs and caring for families while adjusting to a new environment, Rabalais said.
“Life just kicks in, and they have more immediate needs,” Rabalais said.
Thomas — one of those teachers who retired after a 40-year career but found herself in a classroom a month later — led a dozen adult English learners last Tuesday in three hours of conversation that allowed them practice. They talked about their careers, their experiences in the United States and — as conversations often wander toward these days — Donald Trump.
The adult students in Thomas’ night class agreed that learning the language is the No. 1 barrier preventing them from using their skills and training to assimilate into the local workforce.
One student, an aerospace engineer from Mexico, now works in construction to fund a future master’s degree that will give him credentials to work in the U.S., where he said there’s more work opportunities than in his home country.
Another student, a retired Turkish doctor, is learning English with plans to pursue a degree in a new field, likely in computers.
The students form a network among themselves and with their teachers, who help them find work and choose career paths aligned with their traits and qualifications, Thomas said.
“They’re there because they want to be,” she said, finally looking at an empty classroom about 8 p.m. and about 12 hours after her workday began.
“By the end of the day,” she said, “you realize the reward.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.