ELL program captivates community at annual open house

When Teresa Leach took over the English Language Learning (ELL) program roughly 15 years ago, she never anticipated drawing between 250 and 300 students, faculty and community members to their annual open house.

Started by Leach and Michelle Stebner ten years ago, the ELL Open House has not only become an integral part of curriculum but also the community; Leach said the giant party provides parents, faculty and members of the community with a non-intimidating way “to get to know one another.”

“Most of our parents are not English speakers,” she said, adding that the only time they came to school was if their student was in trouble or for parent-teacher conferences. “It can be a scary situation. I wanted them to feel comfortable at school; I wanted them to feel like they could come in and see me anytime, and so they meet the teachers and administrators in a non-intimidating situation.”

Leach recalls her first year at the helm of the ELL program. With only one student and no dedicated classroom, Leach said she kept her materials in the faculty lounge and floated alongside her single student.

Fifteen years later, the program has transformed; with robust enrollment and proper resources — a dedicated room, textbooks and computers — the program is now capable of drawing crowds for their annual outreach event.

“I feel very supported by the administration. I really do,” Leach said.

Data provided by the Wyoming Department of Education indicates that Big Horn County School District 3 — Greybull Elementary, Middle and High School — all have higherthan- average enrollment in the ELL program.

Fifty-one of the district’s 491 students — roughly 10.2 percent — participate in the ELL program; for comparison, Big Horn County School District 1, 2 and 4 all have participation rates near or less than one percent, while the average statewide participation rate falls around 3.6 percent.

Although graduation has caused a minor decline in the number of enrolled students over the past years, Leach said she has seen an increase in number. Regardless of enrollment, Leach said she opens her room to any student — past, present or future — to provide them with something resembling a home away from home.

“It doesn’t matter if someone is in the program, being monitored or out of the program, there are some times where they need help. I never turn anybody away,” she said.

“For most students there’s nobody at home that can help them. While many parents speak English, some of them don’t read it. If they’re struggling or if they want a place [where they can] be calm, they know they’re always welcome here.”

Every year for the open house Leach chooses a theme for the invitation. This year’s theme — superheroes — reflects her view of her students; that they’re all superheroes.

“There was a lot of stuff going around in the news about people of Mexican descent and other immigrants. I felt that it hurt their confidence; it hurt them to hear all the negative things that were said,” she said.

“I wanted them to know that, to me, they’re superheroes; I wanted them to know what they heard on the news was not true of who they are.”