Iles first-grader Rodolfo Rodriguez pages through a workbook during a tutoring session with Sara Lepper. Twice-weekly tutoring sessions, available through Quincy Public Schools’ English Language Learner program, help Rodolfo bridge the language barrier between speaking Spanish at home and English at school.

QUINCY — Iles first-grader Rodolfo Rodriguez read aloud to find out more about Chris, Mark and John.

John is bad at making his bed. Mark is worse at making his bed. Chris is the worst at making his bed.

It’s a lesson on words that mean similar things and words that have more than one meaning — potentially confusing topics for any first-grader but especially one that speaks Spanish, not English, at home.

Twice-weekly tutoring sessions with Sara Lepper, available through Quincy Public Schools’ English Language Learner program, help bridge the language barrier.

“She teaches me more,” Rodolfo said.

It’s hard learning English “because there are some tricky words that I might not know,” Rodolfo said, but he said it’s a lot easier to speak and understand his second language now than it was last year in kindergarten.

Rodolfo’s teacher Kathy Womack, who doesn’t speak Spanish, worried at the start of the school year about how to communicate with him.

“He is the first ELL student I’ve had in my 18 years of teaching,” Womack said.

“His language and knowledge of how words are put together have improved so much. He’s really catching on to those kinds of things even more than my kids who have always spoken English,” she said. “Having that extra layer of support (from Lepper) is very helpful. We can work together to make improvements and see progress in the student’s language.”

Helping students succeed in the classroom is a goal of the school district’s little-known ELL program, serving 35 students to date this school year, up from 23 in the previous two years, speaking nine languages.

“We are seeing a little bit of an increase in the number of students coming in and identified as English Language Learners,” QPS Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Kim Dinkheller said. “The other thing we’ve seen shift is the level of support needed for students coming in with limited English proficiency. More students are coming in with no English.”

When the district’s existing program didn’t meet all the needs of an eighth-grade student who spoke only Italian, Dinkheller started expanding the effort some four years ago, tapping into state funding to support academics and other needs of students — and their families — while building awareness of ELL services.

What the program offers is important to ELL students — and to Quincy.

“As our community becomes even more and more diverse, in public school we’re trying to meet as many needs as possible,” said Lepper, who tutors nine K-5 ELL students this year through the program. “We have to continue to embrace the diversity. We have a lot to learn from these kids.”


The Illinois State Board of Education defines English Language Learners as as any student in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade whose home language background is a language other than English and whose proficiency in speaking, listening, reading, and writing or understanding English is not yet sufficient to provide the student with:

  • The ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English.
  • The opportunity to participate fully in the school setting.
  • The ability to meet proficiency level of achievement on Illinois state assessments.

Potential ELL students in QPS are identified through a home language survey at registration, then go through a state-approved screening process touching on speaking, listening, reading and writing skills.

Identified ELL students are connected to Mike McKinley, the QPS ELL support liaison who works to determine academic and social needs of the students and develop an individual action plan which is reviewed each year. An annual English Language Proficiency state assessment determines if the student continues in the ELL program.

McKinley “sometimes is the first person we introduce a family to. He’s able to translate for them,” Dinkheller said. “He goes above and beyond for our families. He not only connects them to services in QPS but in Quincy itself.”

The needs vary by student.

“Some are coming to us with very formal schooling, then we got a student who moved from a very rural part of Mexico and was not attending school every day,” Dinkheller said.

Action plans for students with no English skills may call for just attempting an interaction with the teacher at least once a day. Plans for more fluent students might call for asking questions to clarify something said in the classroom.

Statistics show ELL students coming into first grade with level one English comprehension may need up to six years to become proficient. “We put that plan together knowing that they’re not going to make it there in one year,” Dinkheller said.

McKinley links students to their support team of QPS staff working to meet academic and social-emotional needs — and often acts as a translator for the families.

“They don’t know how to open a bank account here, how to get services of a pediatrician for their children. I go to dentist appointments with them, show them where in town to buy their groceries. If they don’t have any family network here, they’re pretty isolated,” McKinley said.

He routinely checks in with the students and with the families, and a burst of rapid-fire Spanish comes out of the phone as he talks with Oralia Rincon, who has a son and daughter at Lincoln-Douglas and a daughter at QHS and moved from Minnesota to Quincy for her husband’s work.

“The more I understand my role, I understand I’m not doing enough that needs to be done,” he said. “It’s taking us time to structure the competent, detailed program that’s going to meet those needs faster and better. We’re trying. We’re going to get there.”

But there are plenty of bright spots — including seventh-grader Megan Ortiz who stops by McKinley’s room to say hello.

Ortiz moved to Quincy from Mexico last year speaking hardly any English and relying on a translator on her phone. A very determined student, with a very supportive family, McKinley said she excels in her classwork and in speaking her second language.

“Mainly what helped was studying on my own,” Ortiz said. “I feel like I’m adjusted. I started my own debate club at school. It’s going really good. I feel like I’m making progress. I don’t use the translator much anymore.”


Tutors like Lepper and Zach Bentley, who works with 6-12 students, provide another resource for ELL students.

“My role is really to be the bridge between the language that is spoken at home and English,” Lepper said. “I really work on the nuances of our language — understanding metaphors, similes, to/two/too — and helping them understand our culture as well. Parents want their children to be immersed in the culture here in the U.S. yet stay allegiant to their former culture as well.”

Lepper uses grade-level curriculum to work with Rodolfo and fourth-grader Mia Ortiz-Malagon at Iles. “She teaches me new stuff I didn’t know. I want to work with her more,” Mia said.

“All of the kids have advanced at least through one whole grade level this year and are doing very, very well,” Lepper said. “The kids have to realize, and I tell them this all the time, they have such a gift. They are going to be fully fluent in two languages. That’s going to be such an attribute as they get older and move into the workforce.”

At home Rodolfo turns into the teacher, helping his parents learn English.

“My dad and my mom don’t know how to talk English. Everybody in my house talks in Spanish, so every time my dad doesn’t know something to say to somebody I tell my dad what to say or my mom,” he said.

A translator feature in SeeSaw allows Womack to communicate with Rodolfo’s mom, who doesn’t speak English.

“I send her messages in English, but she can see it in Spanish. It helps a lot,” Womack said. “She’s trying very hard to learn it herself at home through Rodolfo.”

Rodolfo concentrates on speaking English, not Spanish, at school, but Womack said his classmates think it’s “really cool” to hear his Spanish.

“It makes them curious,” she said. “They’ll count in Spanish to 10 to show ‘I can speak a little bit of Spanish too.’ They think they’re pretty cool when they can say something Rodolfo can say too.”

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