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Waco ISD works to bridge lessons for non-English speaking students

Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Moldova, Nepal, Philippines, Russian Federation, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Tanzania, Nicaragua, El Salvador…these are just half of the countries from which Waco ISD students once lived but have now made Texas their home. The district currently works to meet the needs of students speaking 30 different languages. The top three student-spoken languages in Waco ISD are English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

ESL and Bilingual Education Director Grace Benson said emergent bilingual education is offered at all grade levels to ensure students’ academic success.

“Emergent Bilingual students are in the process of developing bilingualism. Our goal is that our Emergent Bilingual students will also become Biliterate, not only speaking two languages but also reading and writing in two languages, the primary language and the second language,” Benson said.

Teachers use a variety of strategies to get students conversing including picture and sequence cards and chat mats where writing is incorporated along with speaking. New students are identified to ensure lessons are equitable in comparison to their peers.

“An essential goal is to reduce the dropout rate of Emergent Bilingual students,” Benson said. “As a department, we have put into place systems to specifically address our most at-risk secondary Emergent Bilingual students. We rejoice when we see Emergent Bilingual students walk across the stage and obtain their high school diploma despite facing significant barriers each day as they acquire a second language.”

The district’s strategies are working as the dropout rate, which was 8.1 percent in the 2017-2018 school year, has steadily declined each year outside the pandemic. By the 2020-2021 school year, the dropout rate declined 63 percent to 3.1 percent. The emergent bilingual graduation rate climbed from 81.2% in the 2021-2022 school year to 83.6% in the 2022-2023 school year.

Through a community partnership, Hispanic Leaders' Network's Navegando Mentorship Program took 70 students from Waco ISD's University High and Waco High schools to tour Baylor University for a tour and presentation that was provided in Spanish.

“Waco has a large, wonderful Hispanic population that is rich with cultural traditions,” Benson said. “We also have newcomer students that have come to the United States with their families from North and Central American countries seeking a better quality of life.”

Waco ISD offers linguistic, academic, and emotional support to newcomer students and their families through one-on-one and small group tutoring sessions. The district partners with local industries and institutions in the community to expose students to various opportunities outside of school. 

Waco ISD provides Dual Language Immersion programs in nine of its 15 elementary campuses. Now in its third year of a five-year plan, the district continues to scale the program to ultimately include middle and high schools.