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Exploring Colorado: Camp Helps Students Develop Language, Friendships

Emmanuel Lozano Padilla District 49 students joined a six-day summer English expedition, where they explored localized, project-based lessons in science to develop language and friendships.

More than 30 elementary to high school students with less than three years of exposure to U.S. schools signed up for the summer camp, according to Martina Meadows, District 49 English language development coordinator.

Held in early June, a week into summer break, it’s a first for District 49, and possibly a first in the Pikes Peak region, according to Meadows.

Spanning the northeastern side of Colorado Springs and the Falcon area of El Paso County, the school district has experienced a lot of growth. According to a 2012 fall head count, 15,478 students were enrolled. In the fall of 2015, that number went over 20,500.

“Over the past three years, we’ve had a significant increase in students new to the United States,” said Meadows. “Because of that, we received additional federal funding, which we’ve put toward creating this camp.”

Meadows is conducting pre- and post-assessments to help the district evaluate the camp’s effectiveness. Half way through its inaugural expedition, she says several observations are encouraging, from daily attendance to peer engagement.

Arriving on buses from across the district, the youngest student was transitioning from first grade. The oldest just graduated high school. A couple of multilingual students arrived to simply assist the process, as peer mentors and language brokers.

The group represented a coordination of cultures and languages from various countries, including Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, Germany, Ethiopia, Russia and China.

Silva Beate, English language development teacher at Horizon Middle School, one of the teachers who volunteered to support the camp’s summer expedition, said the goal is hands-on activities that lead to speaking, listening, reading and writing in English.

Under the theme “Surviving Colorado,” students were put into groups that’d try to keep English as the only shared language. Through immersion activities, secondary school students explored wildfires, water filtering and making shelters for different ecosystems.

“It’s fun to work in a team,” said Emmanuel Lozano Padilla, 13, wrapping duct tape around PVC pipes for a shelter concept outside the district’s Creekside Success Center. Originally from El Salvador, he previously attended schools in Mexico.

“We can make new friends and learn new languages,” said Emmanuel, who’s most interested in studying computer engineering. During the camp, he constructed a shelter designed for rain forest-like conditions with two teammates.

While Emmanuel starts seventh grade at Falcon Middle School, one teammate heads to Sand Creek High School. Also born in El Salvador, her academic career and language proficiency began in Italy. They were working with a student from China, who’s preparing for sixth grade at Skyview Middle School.

“What I’ve learned is that many families move here but haven’t yet experienced Colorado,” said Linda Hagedorn, an English language development teacher at Springs Ranch Elementary School. She was supporting primary school students.

Esther Smith “Many mainstream teachers think everyone’s heard of Garden of the Gods, and everyone understands the mountains, so we’re trying to make those connections,” said Hagedorn, while helping students clean up after a snack outdoors.

“We also try to make comparisons and contrasts with wherever they’re from.”

Inside the building, supplies were stacked on three folding tables, as wildlife recordings added to the ambiance. With small cardboard boxes, children created habitat dioramas using clay, tissue paper, pipe cleaners, paints, markers, pencils, scissors and plastic animals.

Nine-year-old Esther Smith is fluent in Amharic, a language used in Africa’s Amhara region. She started developing English in first grade, after moving from Ethiopia. She’s preparing to start third grade at Rocky Mountain Classical Academy.

“When the other kids talk in their language, it feels like I’m learning from them,” said Esther, painting a blue sky for her habitat. “I sometimes know what they’re talking about right away. Like when the kids said ‘bless you’ in Chinese and Spanish after someone sneezed.”

Kathy Tarry A previous primary school project modeled flash floods. Using a table, the children positioned sand and rocks, and then tested hypotheses into how different speeds of water flow might change each mock landscape.

A field trip to a nature center in the Pikes Peak foothills was scheduled, a hike that’d result in picking berries, finding animal tracks and taking shelter. The camp would then finish with a focus on first aid, Colorado wildlife and indigenous plants with medicinal uses.

“I’m already seeing the results of this camp in their writing, and their ability to communicate with each other,” said Beate, emphasizing that each small group activity required a shared use of English.

“They’re all working together with common goals in mind, so they have to communicate,” she said. “And we can see where success is made because we can see products of their teamwork.”
Dustin Senger