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Serving English language learners in rural and urban settings

This is the final installment in a series on ELLs in South Dakota. In Huron and Sioux Falls, schools and communities are helping immigrants and refugees feel at home.

Employment opportunities and quality of living are attracting increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees to our state. The result is more diverse communities and more English language learners in South Dakota classrooms. The two largest student populations of ELLs are in Huron and Sioux Falls:

Ann Smith, federal programs coordinator for the Sioux Falls School District, says approximately 40 percent of the district’s ELL population has or has had refugee status.


Kari Hinker is the director of ESL and federal programs in the Huron School District. She says that more immigrants and refugees started moving to Huron when a turkey processing plant opened in the area about five years ago. A beef jerky plant in Alpena also has led to growth.

Spanish and Karen are the two most common languages spoken by immigrants and refugees in Huron. Many Karen speakers in the community come from Burma and Thailand. ELLs in the Sioux Falls School District speak more than 70 languages, including Arabic, Dinka, Nepali, Tigrinya, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.

Huron – Curriculum and instruction

For students who are new to the U.S. and qualify for ESL services, Huron has a newcomer program. Students can participate in this program for up to one year, working on their English-speaking skills and learning various customs of the country and school system.

High school students spend half days in the newcomer program, and middle school students attend for two hours a day. For elementary students, the program is incorporated into regular classroom time.

Hinker says, “They come out of it [newcomer program] and fit right in. It’s neat to see them acclimate so quickly to our culture. They’re very eager to learn.”

The district uses W-APT scores to screen students for language proficiency and now has a distinct ESL curriculum in place for each grade level. Huron utilizes a sheltered instruction model in which ELLs and native English speakers learn together. Find more details about Huron’s ESL programming on the district’s website.

Sioux Falls – Curriculum and instruction

In Sioux Falls, there are two levels of ESL programming: immersion and center-based. Students who are new to the country and/or have the most limited English proficiency attend an immersion center for up to two years. Immersion classrooms do not include native English speakers. ELLs are immersed in the English language at the same time they are learning the various content areas and American cultural expectations.

Center-based sites are for students who are not new to the country but who are not yet sufficiently proficient in English to succeed in a regular classroom without support. Eight elementary schools, two middle schools, and all three high schools are center-based sites. In these schools, students are mainstreamed into classes with native English speakers. Classroom teachers at the center-based schools have been trained in sheltered instruction observation protocol (SIOP). Additional teachers with the English as a New Language endorsement provide direct language instruction for students and support classroom teachers in differentiating instruction.

Once students achieve proficiency, staff monitor their progress for two years to ensure that students are continuing to progress without residual language barriers.

Find more information about Sioux Falls’ ESL programming on the district’s website.

School-home liaisons

Both Huron and Sioux Falls employ school-home liaisons who help families acclimate to life in the U.S. “These people are vital to what we do,” says Jane Hanneman, ELL program coordinator for the Sioux Falls School District. “I can see what a difference it makes. At my school, the school-home liaison gives the initial school tour and talks about what American schools look like.”

In some cultures, parents aren’t encouraged to get involved in their child’s education. Liaisons make sure parents know that in the U.S., they are welcome in their child’s classroom and they can talk to their child’s teacher at any time, not only at parent-teacher conferences.

Liaisons can also help families navigate non-education-related concerns like medical services.

Sioux Falls also runs a program called Parent U for two hours every Friday. During these sessions, liaisons offer parents guidance on everything from understanding their child’s Chromebook to counting American money.

Community support

Hinker says businesses, churches and volunteers in the community have stepped up to make families feel welcome in Huron. Business owners have helped new residents start businesses, including Asian and Hispanic grocery stores. Volunteers teach adult ESL classes and businesses have been eager to hire bilingual employees.

Charitable groups have donated winter clothing for families unused to harsh South Dakota winters. There is a backpack food program for disadvantaged students. Huron also puts on a cultural fair every year where students showcase their home countries by displaying flags and pictures. Many of them also write about their experiences coming to the U.S.

In Sioux Falls, the Multicultural Center hosts special days to honor various cultures in the city. Every May, Hawthorne Elementary produces their International Festival. The school is transformed to create a simulated world tour, complete with ethnic food and fashions. Among other services in Sioux Falls, the Bowden Youth Center provides some students busing from school to after-school programming and back home.

School collaboration

While their districts may be different, Hinker, Hanneman and Smith all take a similar approach to serving English language learners—collaboration. They strongly recommend educators network with other districts, as well as community resource groups. The Department of Education is also available to help.

For more information, contact Yutzil Rodriguez, South Dakota Department of Education, at (605) 773-4698.