Keila Reyes

Keila Reyes, 20, speaks about her experience moving to Hallsville from Mexico when she was 9 and learning English. Reyes is majoring in worship studies with a focus on music ministry at East Texas Baptist University.

Editor’s note: To read this story in Spanish, please click here.

When Keila Reyes moved to Hallsville at age 9, she not only had to deal with making new friends, meeting new teachers and finding her way around a new school, she also faced a communication barrier.

Reyes and her family moved from San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in Mexico when she was in the fifth grade. When she started school at Hallsville ISD, she knew only a few words of English and understood next to none, she said.

Reyes, now 20 and a worship studies major at East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, is not alone in her story.

According to population estimates released in June by the U.S. Census Bureau, Texas gained nine Hispanic residents for every additional white resident. The 2018 Hispanic population estimate in Texas is 11,368,849, which is an increase of 1,907,928 people from 2010.

The census bureau defines Hispanic or Latino as a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture of origin regardless of race.

The Texas Education Agency has requirements for schools to accommodate students who do not speak English. Michelle Walker, coordinator of special programs at Pine Tree ISD, said if a school has 20 or more students in the same grade level who speak a language at home other than English, the school needs a bilingual education program.

In East Texas, the number of students who do not speak English shows some school districts have a need for the programs.

According to Texas Education Agency Academic Performance Reports for the 2017-18 school year, Longview ISD has 1,615 students learning English, which is 18.9 percent of the district. Pine Tree ISD has 667 students learning English, making up 14.3 percent of the district. At Spring Hill ISD, 5.4 percent of its students are learning English, which is 105 students. And in Hallsville ISD, 204 students are learning English, which is 4 percent of the district population.

Pine Tree has bilingual education for students who qualify in grades pre-K through sixth, Walker said. Students in the bilingual classroom are with a bilingual teacher who uses strategies to teach the students English with instruction.

“Let’s say you have kindergarten students, and the teacher is going to read them a story about a rabbit,” she said. “She may show a picture of it, because they know that word in whatever their other language might be, and they see the picture and go, ‘When she says rabbit, this is what I see.’ ”

English as a second language students work with a certified teacher to master lessons and learn English, Walker said. Students are evaluated with a language proficiency test, and parents make a final decision on whether the student will be in a bilingual class, ESL program or neither.

Longview ISD has campuses with dual language one-way and two-way classes, said Lori Sustaita, bilingual and ESL supervisor. At South Ward Elementary School, English and Spanish speakers are integrated in first and second grades so both learn a new language. Each year, another grade will be added.

“The students are taught 50 percent in Spanish and 50 percent in English,” she said. “In second grade, they have Spanish language arts, science and social studies in Spanish, math in English with no translation and English language arts. That’s grades second through fifth, and sixth and up is strictly English language support or the ESL support.”

At Ned E. Williams Elementary School, J.L Everhart Elementary School, Bramlette STEAM Academy, Ware Elementary School and East Texas Montessori Prep Academy, Spanish speakers are in one class and are taught English, she said.

ESL students have a certified ESL teacher who helps teach English in the classroom, Sustaita said. The teachers use visuals, hand gestures and other extra support.

“Sometimes (students are) pulled out to receive those services,” she said. “Usually, when we have those students at the beginning or intermediate level, we pull them out, but a lot of times the more advanced students, they just remain in the classroom and the ESL teacher will go in and support the teacher.”

Reyes said once she started working with an ESL teacher who was with her throughout the day and had a dedicated class period to learn English, it took her about a year to be fluent.

Her assignments helped her learn, but so did reading a lot and watching television shows. She still speaks Spanish and English daily, she said.

“It was stressful,” Reyes said, “because I had just came from a school where I was top of the class to a school where I didn’t understand the language and it was difficult for me, mentally and emotionally. I felt kind of overwhelmed, but it was an experience that helped me want to get better every single day.”

Overall, Reyes said the experience is not as scary as people might think.

“Me and my family, we had a lot of teachers and people who were always there to help us feel comfortable and make sure we were doing well,” she said. “We knew there were people there that wanted us to succeed.”