ESL director draws on experience

Steve Ross knows what it's like to have to learn a new language. And he knows what's it's like to feel unequal to the task.

"I have a tremendous empathy for these kids as they learn English," he said. "I want to help them because I had such a hard time."

Ross, who started his career as an English-as-a-second-language teacher about six years ago, was recently named the first full-time ESL director for the Carson City School District.

Ross, 58, grew up on a farm in northeastern Utah. He attended school, but a learning disorder left him basically illiterate until he was in high school, where he was told to pursue a vocational career because he'd never make it in college. He went to college anyway. He signed up for a remedial English class and got a "D."

"I should have gotten an 'F,'" he explained. "The teacher gave me a break because I tried so hard."

After his first year of college, Ross received a mission call to Mexico through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Before entering the field, he studied at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. As he struggled with the language, officials there offered to send him to a stateside mission. He declined.

Once in Mexico, Spanish still eluded him. His mission president again offered to send him to an English-speaking mission.

Again, he declined.

"I really felt I had been called there for a reason," he said.

In the end, it was the Mexican children who helped him most.

"They could explain things at my level," he said. "Gradually, I started catching on to what languages are made of - nouns and verbs and how verbs are conjugated."

In learning Spanish, he began also to understand English. He returned from his mission to Weber State University, where he received a bachelor's degree in Spanish. Still, he had more of an inclination for technical work and went to work for Puget Sound Power as a draftsman. He later transferred to Sierra Pacific Power Co. and after 24 years was offered an early retirement.

He took it and set off to start a new life. His wife is an ESL teacher at Seeliger Elementary School and he decided to look into it. After much consideration, he decided to follow his wife's lead and went back to school to get his teaching license and got his first job teaching ESL at Empire Elementary School about five years ago.

As the school district is working to meet federal guidelines in the No Child Left Behind act, Ross became the school district's first full-time ESL coordinator. He is coordinating efforts to help non-English students become proficient in the language. Ross said his own experience helps him relate with students but also makes him "somewhat demanding."

"With a learning disability, I learned it," he said. "I know they can do it. Giving up is not a choice."


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