MASON CITY, Iowa (AP) — Communication is a key piece to a student’s success in American schools, but it can be a challenge when English is not your first language.

Mason City’s English-learner program has seen its student population increase rapidly with children who speak many different first languages. With that growth and each child being a different situation, teachers and paraeducators are met with a variety of challenges.

“I grew in one year from half of a percent of the student population to 7% of the student population at the high school,” EL high school teacher Jeremy True told the Mason City Globe Gazette.

An English learner is a student in the process of acquiring English proficiency who has a first language other than English or in addition to English, according to the Iowa Department of Education. True explained a language survey is sent home to determine if another language is spoken by the child outside of school. A screening test is then done on how well a student speaks English and if they need to be in EL.

“If they don’t score certain benchmarks on that test then they’re put into our program. Then we work with them on English and developing English skills based upon what that test says their deficiency areas are,” said True.

EL status remains with a student until they are able to, according to the Iowa Department of Education:

Listen, speak, read, and write in English.

Be successful in the classroom setting where there is language instruction.

Be able to actively participate in their classroom, school, community, and beyond.

EL students are among the fastest-growing populations in Iowa’s schools, according to the Department of Education. EL students make up about 10% of the student population nationwide and over 6% in Iowa.

True says some students are born in Mason City with families that speak another language, some students are adopted from overseas and still perfecting their English, and others come to North Iowa with family for work and more reasonable living costs.

Mason City is seeing the fastest growth of new students from the Federated States of Micronesia, most from the island of Pohnpei and Ngatik, according to True. The district also has Spanish, Mandarin, and Russian speakers.

“Pohnpeian has about 20,000 speakers globally and Ngatik has 700. I think between Jordan (Brunsma) and I, we know about 5% of all the Ngatik speakers in the world, which is amazing. It’s right here in Mason City,” said True.

The elementary EL program is more skills-focused compared with the secondary levels of education, where the English curriculum is infused into other subjects.

“I’m doing a lot more work with my curriculum. I don’t have to worry so much about the homework and tests and things like that. Students aren’t graded in my classroom, they’re graded in their home rooms,” said Harding and Hoover Elementary EL teacher Jordan Brunsma.

“You start a kid in kindergarten, even many of the native speakers are still learning shapes and colors, so the kids aren’t far behind in language ability,” said True.

Along with EL teachers having the ability to speak another language, translation apps and paraprofessionals who speak other languages can help bridge gaps in communication. When those are not available, particularly with a student who speaks an uncommon language, cards with images are used to meet a child’s basic needs, and teachers then work from there.

“I had a few girls move here from Bulgaria a few years ago, and they didn’t know how to ask for their basic needs and they were teens. I gave them cards with a ring that has a picture of what they need, like the restroom or needing a drink of water,” said True.

Cultural differences can present challenges for both students and teachers, especially if the expectations are different for a family from another country. Children who come from countries where compulsory school is nonexistent or where certain subjects are more valued can present their own set of challenges. True and Brunsma both said it also is challenging when a student is older and knows little English.

“Some of the biggest challenges is not just the language, it’s a lot of the content,” said True.

True said a lot of students struggle in history the most, mainly because the subject builds up that student’s knowledge at a young age. If a student moves and enrolls in high school, American history may not be a priority.

“You’re at a major disadvantage for a lot of the social studies classes because they might know a lot about the government and history in the country they were originally from, but not how it works here. A lot of the high school stuff assumes a lot of background knowledge that may not be there,” said True.

Brunsma said some students may have great social skills and speaking ability, but still be in the EL program because they don’t have the academic vocabulary yet and are developing those skills in the program.

“Sometimes there can be that misconception that this kid is proficient in English, they should be doing better in the classroom, but it takes quite a bit more time for those academic skills to develop,” said Brunsma.

With the number of students rising in the EL program, Brunsma and True struggle with scheduling and finding time to serve each student.

“It was easier to support a small group of students, and now it is a bigger challenge,” said True.

“I go to two schools this year. I have gone to three schools in the past. I don’t ever feel like I have enough time in one place with those kids,” Brunsma said.

True and Brunsma expect the EL program to grow even more in the future, which strain funding and classroom space. Both EL teachers want to do what is best and serve those attending the Mason City district.

“They’re all of our students. They’re all the teachers’ students, not just EL students. We have to look at them as part of the whole to make sure that these kids have what they need,” Brunsma said.