KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Many English-learning students face obstacles with schoolwork because in some cases, there isn't an English speaker at home.
Eight-year-old Mateo Martinez said it's easier for him to see the joys of learning, especially now that he understands what's being said.
"It was sad for me as a mom going to drop him off at school and that he didn't understand anything from his classmates. Then he would tell me crying, 'Mommy I don't want to go to school because I don't understand what they're telling me,'" Gloria Martinez, Mateo’s mother, said in Spanish.
The family arrived in the United States from Honduras five years ago.
"It was hard at the beginning, like everything. Like every Hispanic family, I think we have the worst barrier," Mateo's father Denis Isaula said in Spanish.
A hard truth for Mateo when he first set foot into the Hickman Mills School District.
“He cried a lot the first two days, obviously no one spoke Spanish in his class, but in two days he became friends with another classmate and the teacher told us that he would speak to him in Spanish and his friend spoke English. Only they understood each other, but all day they spent playing happily,” Isaula said.
Over time, Mateo began to pick up his new language.
"When I was in pre-K I only listened to the other children who were speaking English and from there I was learning and learning more every day," Mateo said.
That first hand experience at a young age goes a long way when it comes to absorbing new information and language skills, according to Swapnam Kumar, Hickman Mills' English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) coordinator.
"If they're kindergartners, we don't even want to pull them out because they're learning the language and everything with the peers. Everybody's learning the same. They know the language but they're still learning so many different things when they are in this environment," Kumar said.
Our region has experienced a drastic surge in English-language-learners in K-12 schools since 2000, according to a 2020 study from the U.S. Department of Education.
Nationwide, enrollment of the same group has gone up by more than one million students during the same time period.
"Speaking English, being fluent in English and understanding the academic language is two different things," Kumar said.
The district's ESL coordinator believes starting from square one produces long-term success.
"I always tell the classroom teachers don't go for the academic teaching, teach them how to adjust in this new environment, new culture, new language, new people,' everything is new for them, going to the cafeteria, how to get the food, how to ask for help if you need going to the bathroom, that simple thing which we never think twice, but for them everything is new," Kumar said.
On top of the struggles that come with being an English-learner, the COVID-19 pandemic has added an extra hurdle.
"Sometimes what happens, they go back to the country and they come back after a year, it happened a lot during the pandemic. They went back to Mexico or their own country and they came back. Because it was virtual they can work, but they didn't have the facilities on internet and all so they lost the language, so we consider them again as a newcomer," Kumar said.
This was not the case for Mateo who said he loves math and is mastering the English language.
When it comes to homework time, it's all hands on deck for the Martinez family.
"We do the homework they give him and if there's homework that I do not understand we use the translator," Martinez said.
At Hickman Mills, there are between 400 and 500 English learners like Mateo— to help their parents there are eight interpreters, five of which are specifically for Spanish speakers.
Silvia Jurado, a daughter of immigrants, is one of the ESOL interpreters.
"I answer them. I sent text messages to the teachers, emails, phone calls, in any way that I can, even go to the schools and talk to the teachers," Jurado told KSHB 41 News.
She's an invaluable resource to Mateo’s parents who are in the process of learning English themselves.
"My son is also my best teacher in the house," Isaula said. "He corrects me when I pronounce something wrong and so basically in our daily lives, little by little, we feel we're improving every day."
Isaula and Gloria said seeing their son's success so far gives them hope for the American dream.
"That we will persevere, that we are here fighting for a purpose. We all come with the same purpose and to focus on our family and on our daily work — that will bring us good results,” Isaula said.