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Bridging language – Mount Angel schools employees new software

By Melissa Wagoner

On average, Mt. Angel School District enrolls three multilingual learners, whose first language is neither English nor Spanish, each year. But during the 2022-2023 school year, the district welcomed 25.

“A lot of students in this group are somehow related to each other,” William Holman – the district’s English Language Development Program Teacher on special assignment – said of the influx. It was both unexpected and challenging.

But the timing couldn’t have been better, because those new enrollments just happened to coincide with the addition of another new face – Holman’s. He came on board thanks to funding from House Bill 3499, aimed at improving the K-12 education of English language learners statewide.

“I don’t know what we would have done without this money,” Director of Special Services Erica Gordon said.

Not only did it provide the district with Holman’s position, it also allowed him to purchase new, state-of-the art translation programming that has enabled those students, who are at an English acquisition level of one or below, to participate fully in mainstream classes – something that was nearly impossible before.

“It’s really quite incredible,” Holman said of the equipment. It consists of an iPad installed with real time translation software, a highly sensitive bone microphone headset for the student and a lapel microphone for the teacher.

“The teacher starts the session with a code and that speaks to the iPad,” Holman explained. Then, once the student has chosen a primary language, each word the teacher says becomes translated both in the students’ ear and on the iPad’s screen.

“It’s not perfectly on time and it’s not 100 percent,” Holman said. “It’s AI, so it struggles with names. But it’s more efficient than having a human being come in.”

“And it’s less stigmatizing,” Gordon added. “The students in class are really thankful because they have a way to interact.”

Equipped with the ability to translate from both teacher to student and from student to teacher, the program also allows students to participate in class by asking the teacher questions and conversing with fellow students.

“It’s better socially,” Holman confirmed. “It’s very natural and non-obtrusive.”

And it allows students who are just beginning to learn the English language to keep up on their other studies as well.

“We want them to progress in their native language while they work on acquiring English,” Gordon said. “And that generally happens pretty quickly, depending on their former education, usually they learn in a year and a half to two years.”

At which time the translation software becomes unnecessary.

“Living bilingually and thinking bilingually is very tiring,” Holman said of the students’ natural drive to learn English as quickly as possible.

Already proving successful after the first year of use, the new software is only one of the ways Holman and Gordon are working to make the Mt. Angel School District more welcoming to students – of all cultures and languages.

“If kids and families don’t feel like they belong then they aren’t going to be successful,” Gordon explained. “We want to consider all the demographics… we want to go from good to great.”

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