As a growing number of Hispanic families move into Tangipahoa Parish, the school system is expanding a program that aims to help students who may be struggling with language barriers that can make learning difficult.

Lucille Nesom Memorial School in Tickfaw saw the biggest change in the 2018-19 school year, as what had previously been a hands-off, computer-based English module program offered on a pilot basis became an immersion-style classroom with a certified teacher and tutor.

The students are in the class in 90-minute blocks now rather than the previously scheduled 30-minute periods, and they use conversation, flash cards, reading books, games, and writing exercises to develop knowledge and comprehension of the English language.

“The computer part is a great support and they can do that at home as well, but what these ladies do is the difference and what makes it become language immersion,” said Tangipahoa Parish School System federal programs supervisor Cecilia Lanier. “It ensures they have somebody they can actually communicate with and they’re there if (officials) need to speak to the parents so it makes more of a community.”

On a recent morning in the small modular block at the back of Nesom that houses the 3rd and 4th grade English Language Learners class, the group of 10 students was split in two based on their current knowledge level.

The more advanced were put in one group to focus on comprehending the English words they learned through re-reading books they’d focused on in their regular classrooms, while the students who tested lower on English knowledge practiced writing sentences and defining words.

Of the latter group, Mexican-born Hector Morato and his friend David Hernandez from Honduras were the most confident speakers, easily switching back and forth between Spanish and English depending on what they were trying to say and how easily their peers could comprehend.

They confidently shouted out “pato” (Spanish for duck), “hat”, “white” and other words they saw on the flash cards that their teacher, Sandy Duvic, flipped through -- words varying between English and Spanish.

“I like learning about the words and stuff like this,” Morato said, pointing to the flash cards.

Now, a year after the Nesom pilot, there are two certified teachers and four tutors who split their time between campuses largely in the south end of the parish where the need is greatest, Lanier said. And with the increase in the number of Hispanic students continuing, she said, it’s likely another teacher will be needed by the 2020-2021 school year for the English Language Learners program, which is funded by federal grants.

The employees assigned to the English Language Learners program spend full days in the school now, rather than just the 30-minute lesson blocks as before, and they work with classroom teachers to reinforce what’s being taught at each grade level.

Not all students in the school system’s English Language Learners program are Spanish-speaking, but most are, with the exception of a few who speak only languages common in Vietnam, Nepal or China. For those students, the district uses translation phone applications and has recently purchased translation devices in addition to the computer programs.

School officials say the population of non-English speaking students in the parish has increased from 70 in 2003 when Duvic started with the district to 510 in classrooms now. They say that number can be attributed largely to the strawberry fields in the southern end of the parish and migrant workers who relocate for that seasonal farm work but who stay for construction or other work and want to put their kids in school.

The school district also sends a recruiter out to worksites like the strawberry fields to talk with employees who may have kids at home that could benefit from being in school.

Lanier expects the 2020 Census may give a more detailed look at the Hispanic and non-English speaking population in the Tangipahoa area. However, officials also know there’s a chance it won’t give a full picture of the need as some families are reluctant to fill out the forms, something that’s been a problem in past years.

Fourth-grader Amaya Lopez-Cruz said she was born in America but her family comes from Mexico and they speak Spanish at home. She said working in the English Language Learners classroom makes her transition back to the regular classroom easier.

Still, she sometimes worries about losing some of her Spanish knowledge when she gets home from speaking English in school all day, especially because her dad is learning some English from coworkers as well.

Anthony Vazquez, another fourth grader in the group, agreed. “You sometimes only want to speak a certain language and once you start speaking at home then you’re wondering to yourself what is my family going to understand? So that’s why it’s difficult,” he said.

The district has few metrics to mark the overall success of the program at this early stage, but Nesom principal Samantha Austin said they’ve received positive feedback from teachers. Teachers are reporting that the students are more involved in the classroom, and there has been individual progress in English and math work.

“There’s still some barriers with the language but overall the kids did perform well so I’m just ecstatic about the program,” she said. “My teachers really needed somebody because they just felt so bombarded with (thinking) ‘I want to help these kids I just don’t know how’, so when (Lanier) came in with this program and we were able to find a way to bridge that gap then we could really start making those gains.”

Email Emma Kennedy at ekennedy@theadvocate.com.