Imagine growing up in Guatemala. At home, your family speaks one of the more than 20 Mayan Dialects spoken in the country. At school you learn Spanish, the country’s official language, as your second language. Then your family moves to the United States, and you must learn English, your third language.
By the way … you’re only in second grade.
Learning a new language, on top of keeping up with the rigorous academic expectations of your new school, would be difficult for anyone. That’s why our district has a robust and welcoming English Learners (EL) program that helps students along the way.
“We have 47 languages represented in our EL program,” said Sonia Nicholson, Assistant Director of Special Services. “Our EL population continues to grow even in the middle of a pandemic. And it’s highly diversified within the program. For example, We have 12 students in our district that speak Swahili!”
When the pandemic first shut down our schools in March, EL families were some of the first to get technological help, in the form of mobile hotspots.
“These tend to be our families who are the most vulnerable,” said Nicholson.
“We didn’t want to lose them, see them drop out, or lose engagement. We wanted them to know they weren’t alone,” said Nicholson. “We didn’t want to lose that partnership relationship with the family, and we definitely don’t want to lose the language proficiency the students have gained.”
Once remote learning was in place, EL teachers, who normally would “push in” to a classroom to help students, began “zooming in,” utilizing breakout rooms in grade-level Zoom meetings to help students. EL teachers also hold separate Zoom time with students and provide EL support during independent learning time as well. Plus, every Friday, EL teachers reach out to the families to see how they are doing.
“This is an opportunity for us to engage our families like never before,” said Nicholson.
EL students also get support in their regular classes. Roughly 700 of our teachers have already been trained in EL strategies, and more than 250 have completed GLAD training, which gives them tools to promote language skills, academic achievement, and cross-cultural skills in their classroom, no matter the subject of study. This training is useful for all students, but is critical for EL students.
There isn’t just one type of EL service for all students. Instead, the EL team identifies students’ needs individually. For students that are new to the country, our Newcomer Program responds to their unique needs.
“We have some kids that may be refugees, so now they’re facing major trauma, having to learn English, and don’t feel connected,” said Nicholson.
There are currently 1,079 students active in our EL program. Once they demonstrate proficiency in English, they don’t just leave the program. They and their families are still supported for the next two years. 367 EL students are currently in that two-year academic support phase.