DOE Digest Episode 10: Welcoming Opportunity - Newly-Arrived ELLs – December 12, 2019
Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.
[upbeat background music]
Dr. Lamont Repollet: I’m Dr. Lamont Repollet, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. It is a platform for information exchange, in which the Department will highlight the work being done by innovative and transformative educators around the state.
I have been working to redesign the Department of Education to what I call NJDOE 2.0. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. I hope you enjoy today’s topic.
Ken: Welcome to the DOE Digest podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I’m your host, Ken Bond.
In this episode we're going to be exploring the topic of newly arrived English language learners, also called E-L-Ls, or ELLs.
These students have a native language other than English, are in the process of learning English, and are new to US schools.
For this episode I was able to visit two of our model bilingual-ESL programs, Passaic and Atlantic City, to talk their staff about what they're doing to ensure that newly arrived English language learners are welcomed at their schools.
Before we hear from the staff though, I wanted to introduce you to two students who are seniors at Atlantic City High School, and who came, in high school, as newcomers to the US.
Dr. Denise Sandole, School Psychologist and Stephanie M. Cedeño, Child Study Team
Denise: My name is Dr. Denise Sandole. I am a school psychologist here for the Union City School District I'm part of the Child Study team.
Stephanie: And my name is Stephanie Cedeno and I am a school social worker here in the Union City School District, as well as part of the school-based youth services program team, and I'm also a licensed clinical social worker in the state of New Jersey.
Ken: Denise and Stephanie are experts in trauma and have been working at the Union City School District with students who have faced very difficult situations and high levels of toxic stress. I sat down with them to discuss what trauma is, how it affects the brain, and how teachers can think about helping students who have dealt with trauma. The conversation starts off with a definition from Dr. Denise Sandole about what trauma is and how she defines it.
Denise: Trauma is an unimaginable, life-threatening event that is so stressful it overwhelms our human capacity to adapt to the event or cope with it. And this is going to tie into this trauma-theory by a Dr. Janoff-Bulman. She spoke about this theory known as shattered assumptions, and it's a big part of what I'm always using to view our students with trauma. Because basically, what it means is, we all have these assumptions about our world, very you know mundane example: red light means, stop green light means go.
The same way we have these assumptions about our world, that it's supposed to be a safe place, and that the people in our world are going to treat us well. So, when something like trauma happens that threatens our life in some way or the life of someone we know, those assumption--those assumptions are shattered, sort of thrown out the window and makes us feel like our world is now this topsy-turvy place.
What also gets shattered is this assumption that the trauma, which is usually occurring in the hands of someone that we know and trust, there's this--another term called failed empathy that occurs. So, it's sort of like, “hey you're my--my loved one. You know this is hurting me but you're still doing it.” That really throws us off.
So what ends up happening is we end up feeling sort of out of control of our world. Very helpless. Very powerless. Tons of, um, PTSD-type symptoms can occur. And overall our whole brain circuitry just gets disrupted. Trauma truly is a brain disruption.
Stephanie: And just to add to what Dr. Sandole just, uh, defined for us, it's important also to look at trauma as a concept. And, you know, not everybody experiences the event the same way. So, although the event is very objective and measurable, experience is very subjective and personal. So, I think it's important also to see it as kind of like three elements to it: the event, the experience, and then also how it affects us. So the effect or the 3 E’s. You know.
Denise: The 3 E’s. You know?
Stephanie: [murmurs in agreement]
Denise: Three E's are big. I'm gonna throw in another acronym.
Stephanie: Go ahead.
Denise: So ACE stands for adverse childhood experience, and it comes from a study, actually a longitudinal study, from I think--
Denise: --1995 to 1997.
Denise: Yes it was ,it was a partnership with the CDC and Kaiser Permanente, I read before this podcast, yes, thank you. [ About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study.]
Stephanie: Yes. [laughing]
Denise: ACE would say there's four types of trauma for children, um, related to these adverse childhood events. You have sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. You have protective factors and risk factors that are already in place when the traumatic event occurs that can affect and vary from person to person how the trauma will affect them.
Stephanie: [murmurs in agreement]
Ken: ACES are so impactful because they can lead to trauma. In this next segment, Dr. Sandole discusses the effects of trauma on the brain, as well as the science behind it.
Denise: Trauma is a brain disrupter because it sets off, or triggers, a biological stress response in the brain. Things like, I'm sure everyone has heard of cortisol, or cortisol levels, go up.
Stephanie: [murmurs in agreement]
Denise: Our amygdala, which is very much responsible for our fear response, that gets put in motion. Once this apparatus gets turned on, this biological stress response in the brain, we segue from what is called like a relax and digest mode that we're sitting in right now talking to each other to a fight flight freeze response.
In my research ten years ago, when I was working with Rwandan genocide survivors, they told us through the qualitative study it really is we segue from what is called like a “relax and digest mode” that we're sitting in right now talking to each other, to a “fight-flight-freeze response.” In my research ten years ago, when I was working with Rwandan genocide survivors, they told us through the qualitative study, it really is "we segue into our survivor self." It was this amygdala, you know, um, cortisol response and all the other brain circuitry that that we have, that kept our human race alive. The thing, um, that happens with children's brains when they experience trauma and this--this response occurs, it can affect their development. So, let's break it down. It's going to affect our behaviors, all the parts in our brain that are responsible for our behaviors. It's going to affect our thoughts, how we think about ourselves and others. And it's gonna affect our emotions.The biggest word to remember, about what trauma can do to a developing child's brain, is dysregulation.
Stephanie: [murmurs in agreement]
Denise: That's, in a nutshell ,what I'm talking about. The brain just gets dysregulated. Our homeostasis is thrown off and we're just sort of in this, like I was saying, topsy-turvy state of, up no longer feels up, it feels like down. Left no longer feels left, it feels like right. And we're really struggling to manage ourselves and regulate ourselves, and that can include things such as sleep, eating, in addition to our thoughts, feelings, and, uh, behaviors.
Stephanie: I think another way to look at it too is that there's a learning brain and then there's a survival brain. And that survival brain, if it's constantly activated, that student will not be able to access that information that's being given to them, you know, because they're so hyper-aware of their environment. They're not trusting of the individuals that are surrounding them, and so it puts them in this very precarious state. So this toxic stress, so those cortisol hormones,
Denise: [murmurs in agreement]
Stephanie: or--or otherwise known as the stress hormones, are constantly being excreted. Right?
So that's--that is something that we need to be aware of because if our students are in our classrooms, and they're constantly in this state; the stress hormone is constantly you know being activated in their bodies, they're not going to be able to focus. They're not going to be able to really be present. Right? And we want to get our students to be present, so that they're able to learn and activate that learning brain like I was saying before. So, just it's so important to--to know what's going on, not just you know in terms of the brain, but in every other aspect of what's going on in the body.
Ken: School is a social setting and students can struggle to make social connections when they've experienced trauma. The conversation shifted from the effects of trauma on the brain to how to structure schools, classrooms, and relationships with students, so that they can be trauma-informed.
Denise: Mental health is connection. We are social beings.
Stephanie: [murmurs in agreement]
Denise: We need to have connections. So ,if you tie that now into trauma, traumas--
Stephanie: Are severed connections.
Denise: Yes, disrupts those connections. They call trauma being doubly punished because not only does the trauma survivor have to deal with the impact of the traumatic event, there's so much taboo and guilt and shame around trauma, that it ends up quite often being a secret.
Denise: So those social, you know, relationship-community connections get severed and that's the doubly punished part. So, all this is so important to know as educators so that we can put in place, you know, the supports these children need because it really does impact their learning. It's, so, it's definitely a team effort. I think at a macro level, making sure our professionals have trauma training. So as much as--as we can be educated and then share that awareness with the team that is going to be working with a student, it's really, you know not to sound cliché, takes a village to-- to be able to offer that understanding and the validation and support that the student needs to ultimately help them be a successful student.
Stephanie: Communication, like Dr. Sandole said, is very important. Getting to know who they are, because they are so different. They're so very different and who knows what they have, you know, what--what they're presenting with. Right? And some of the strate-- and teachers can be as creative as they want to be.
I've walked into-- into some classrooms with--where there's a negotiation station. So it's like a corner where the teacher takes a disruptive student and instead of taking punitive actions against that student, there's a discussion. There's communication about, "what are we going to do with this right now? How can we work together to solve this issue?"
Denise: [murmurs in agreement]
Stephanie: "How can you help me in this classroom?" Empower them so that they can be leaders in the classroom, when they're being highly disruptive or, you know, calling for too much attention from the teacher or from their peers? You know, I just found that to be such a great idea-- a negotiation station working.
Denise: Working with our English language learners, we have found that the students sharing their narrative through art, or through an essay, or through poetry, really helps them kind of navigate what they have experienced, especially we're talking about migration. Right? Which can, you know, that's so many levels: pre-migration, then through the journey and then to post resettlement. We're finding that so many of these students are dealing with trauma or exposure to trauma during these three phases. So sharing that story, uh, is very empowering. And teachers can do this through, you know, writing or art. There's so many different ways where a student can share their story and that's a part of the healing process, being able to share your story.
I know, uh, in our county, NAMI has provided psycho-education to our families in Spanish. And that's been really, really important. Because we have to talk about mental illness, but we have to understand it, but we have to, uh, we have to teach it in their language.
Another group that--that we have here that are very vulnerable are--are LGBTQI plus students. And I know that in our school, under our school based Youth Services program, we have a pride Club. And that pride Club, which is also known in many schools as GSA, is a gay-straight Alliance, provides that peer support that we were talking about before, uh, that mutual aid among, uh, students that are LGBTQI. Because they can understand one another, and they help each other through the process of—of recovery. You know, um, a lot of them have been exposed to trauma. So being able to have a group like that is very powerful and gives a voice to those that generally wouldn't have a voice.
And the same goes with our ELL students, right?
Our ELLs. Giving them a voice is very important because they often feel-- these are groups that are marginalized
and oppressed-- so if we can help empower them, give them the tools to--to be empowered, that can help with the alleviation of a lot of the effects of trauma.
Ken: It's not only important for teachers to acknowledge and respond to the trauma that students have experienced, but also to acknowledge and respond to the trauma that they themselves have experienced. Stephanie starts off with practical tips for teachers to consider and think about their own well-being as they work with students who have experienced trauma.
Stephanie: Make sure that you take care of yourself, that you set a practice to, uh--uh, debrief. Because if not, it's going to cause a vicarious drama. And the stories that we hear every day, we're at risk for experiencing a secondary trauma or vicarious trauma. So we need to be very aware of--of how this impacts us personally, right? Because we are also human and there's that connection. We want to be able to help our students thrive. They're--they're surviving, and we want them to thrive, but we also have to check in with self and, "how am I doing today?" Because of the--these stories are really difficult. We feel helpless, like "what--how can I help this child?”
Sometimes part of that is that we can't. And I think in that helplessness we sometimes feel, like, defeated. So that--it's--self-care is important in those moments. Self-care can mean talking to a colleague about how it felt, uh, you know, processing what it was like helping that student or teaching that student, you know, and hearing that story. So using your colleagues to--to debrief, to talk about these difficult feelings that come up for you as a human being, you know, working with children and adolescents. So it's very real.
Denise: A teacher can be tipped off that they need to speak to someone that when they find that what they've experienced is affecting some--some part of their daily functioning. So that could be in their relationships. That could be in their professional functioning. Um, that could be in their hobbies, losing interest in things.
So I think as much as we can, and this is at every tier, you know, for our students, for our staff for each other, destigmatize mental health by normalizing these conversations, so that we can, you know, seek out that peer to peer support and say, “you know I'm really struggling. I'm not sleeping, you know, the last few nights, or “I keep having these angry outbursts with my partner. I don't know, you know, what's going on, and they started ever since I was helping out that one student who had this traumatic event.” The vicarious trauma is a real thing. Um, so I think the more that we can normalize these conversations, it will really help all of us as caregivers be able to provide that support.
[end of Denise and Stephanie’s section]
Atlantic City High School
Kainat: [speaking in Urdu, then repeats in English]. Hey, my name is Kainat Malik and I belong to--from Pakistan. I came here one and a half year ago.
Erick: [speaking Spanish, then repeats in English]. Hi, my name is Erick Ramirez. I came from Guatemala. I was 16 years old when I came United States.
Ken: So what would you say one of the biggest challenges was for you when you -- when you came in to this new school?
Kainat: So, when I came first day in school, I was so nervous. I was like -- I never been outside from my country, like, I lived in Pakistan, so I never been, like, in other countries. So first -- that was my first time I came in United States.
My first period was English, so I went in that class. So my teacher, she saw me, and she was like, "I know you are nervous, but don't be nervous." She introduced me with other students, so I make friends there.
Erick: So my first day in Atlantic City High School, I felt really, um, sad and scared because I don't--I didn't know [any]body. But when I came my first period I made, like, five friends. They were from Honduras and Mexico. I feel good because I have friends at this time.
Oh, uh, the teacher can say "where you from?" Because my teacher, my first teacher, she speak Spanish and English. So, it's no problem [unclear] with the Spanish. She speak me in Spanish so the biggest thing was to...how to get in class on time because my country is very different. We just have four-five hours for each day and in the same room. But in United States you have to change the room for each day. That wasn't too difficult for me 'cause my teacher, every day, she helped me how to get in class. Now I can do by myself and I can help somebody.
Ken: If there’s teachers listening to this podcast and they've never had someone from another country come into their school, and then they, for the first time, have someone from another country come into their school, what advice would you give those teachers?
Kainat: Be like friends. 'Cause I was so nervous, so, they -- they give me, like, chance to be like, not be nervous. So I suggest them to do that with other students too. Our language is changed so we got so nervous. We don't know, like, we don't know anything from other countries, so the teacher is the one, the only one, who can understand students. They don't know our language, but they can see everything in students.
What my teacher, she did it so, she googled it. She translated for me. So she went to the google translate and she translate everything for me. So she went--she, like, so my first period was English and my second period was science. So she went with me to, like, drop me there in science class.
Next year I met with Mr. Deebo and he give me the [recommendations] about college and I'm senior in high school now. He gave me suggestions about my college and my, uh, my language and if -- if I have any, like, problems with students and anyone else, he give me suggestions. He always give me positive decisions. Don't -- he always tells me, like, "don't be negative. Always be positive."
So, I follow his suggestions. If I belong to another country, they're, like, "oh, you're a special one. I'm gonna help you. You can do this. Never lose your hope." They're always like that.
So I love my teachers.
[end of student perspective section]
Ken: After meeting with these amazing students, I was able to glean some insights from the staff at the Atlantic City High School about how they run their program, the reasons behind the decisions they make, and what the future holds for their work.
Beatrice: Hi, I am Beatrice Corvitto and I am the guidance counselor at Atlantic City High School.
Mark: Hi, I'm Mark Deebold. I'm an ESL teacher and a sheltered instruction coach.
Kevin: Hi, my name is Kevin Corcoran. I am an ESL science teacher.
Ken: When you think about newcomers in the context of your school, how would you describe a newcomer?
Beatrice: This is Beatrice. I describe a newcomer, actually, in two ways. A newcomer can be a newcomer to the English language or a newcomer to our school and the United States.
Ken: When a student walks through on their very first day, what does that look like here at Atlantic City High School?
Beatrice: When a student comes to the high school, uh, we have a guidance secretary who is bilingual in Spanish and the bulk of our population is Spanish-speaking. So what I'll do, I'll look at the, uh, list of courses that they have brought from their own country of origin, and decide where--and then of course their age also, where they will fall into...the grade.
If they are 18, and they have some credits, then we place them in the, um, level: ninth grade, tenth grade, eleventh or twelfth, where they would belong. And take it from there and see if they could earn enough credits to either graduate or learn enough English whereby they can also pursue, beyond the high school, a GED program.
Another thing that I try to do is to, especially those students who did not know other students who are coming to the high school, I try to match them with a same-language student peer who will help them throughout the day to identify the classrooms and the gym and the cafeteria and so on.
Mark: This is Mark. When students first arrive, one of the things in addition to the WIDA screener, to get an idea of their English proficiency level, is we offer a questionnaire, which is trying to get at their academic background and what life was like for them in their country.
We'll talk to them through interpreters or through their parents or guardians to kind of get an idea on what their educational experience as like in their country, 'cause it's really important to find out as soon as possible. So, through that questionnaire, we're getting the idea of "did the student finish school in their country?" You know, middle school.
"Are they -- did they only go up to the fourth grade level?"
So through that conversation with the students and their parents and guardians, that, I think, gives us a good idea of what their education was like in--in their country. And then, we'll place them accordingly.
One of the things we've also developed is a welcome DVD. So the students will, hopefully in their own language, I think we have about five or six different languages that the DVD is in. They'll be able to watch the DVD and get themselves a little acclimated to the procedures of the school.
The DVD was made a few years ago as an after school activity. We got together with some of our students representing various language backgrounds. Kind of brainstormed what they felt students would need coming newly from another--another country. From there we kind of wrote the script in English, and then they translated it into their respective languages. So just kind of how to navigate the school and what teachers expect of them, and what the various classes may be like. Uh, we also give them a little welcome bag that kind of, um, includes some products that they may find useful as they, um, enter American school system.
Ken: Many students come into US schools at or above grade level. But others come from countries that can't sustain their education and are students with interrupted formal educations or SIFEs [students with interrupted formal education].
Pay careful attention in this next section to what's discussed regarding making meaning and hands-on lesson planning. It's important that for students who do have an interrupted formal education, teachers don't just work on their language skills, but also build context so that students can learn language and content in their classroom, especially when they go to the older grades so that they can gain the credits they need for graduation.
How do you build programs for students in the content areas, especially when you have a bunch of different languages maybe represented in one classroom? Like, what--what do you do, uh, outside of kind of that, just building their--their basics, their survival English, to help them learn the content so that they can graduate on time.
Kevin: This is Kevin. I believe you said it, uh, right there, is we have to build a program? We have to build courses specifically for, uh, the challenges that we have. So if I'm picturing a--a student that needs to take Algebra 1, or if I'm picturing a student that needs to take Biology to graduate, I think about being a--having been a Biology teacher, and knowing what they need, specifically the skills that they need. Not just content. Not just reading. Not just language. But the skills that they need to succeed in that class. Making a class, which we have newcomer science, that is streamlined to those skills. Teaching them what they need specifically.
But also, there's a lot of things we assume that they might know, or assume that they--they, uh, that we can pass over. And that is really what is the learning experience for us is designing a---a course, or a lesson, and then saying, "Oh, wait. We need to go back and do this."
You always do the anecdote of average. Like, every time you do an experiment, you don't do it once, you did it a few times. And then you have to figure out, you know, the average measurement. And I just assumed, oh, you add them up and divide. That was something that a lot of students, you know, didn't have. And so we had to go back and specifically teach that.
So that would be an example of a specific skill that you need to do, um, I'm not teaching them everything about averages and mean and mode. No, I'm teaching them what they need to do the experiment to get them to the next experiment. And adding the skills as they go along. Um, and we've-- the other thing would be, uh, besides, you know, designing a course and trying to get them there, it's trying to be as hands-on as possible and inquiry based as possible. Like let them, we give them a question and then we try to explore it and solve it. And we use the resources that our school has, between labs. We have our greenhouse, uh, and our new marine research station where we take them out behind the school and actually utilize the school's, uh, environment on top of a, uh, an estuary-marsh, uh, bay. And so they get a lot of hands-on experience that keeps their interest up.
Early in my, um, time, you know being an ESL science teacher, in environmental science I had assigned a, uh -- we were learning about water. And tracing where water comes from. Where they get their water -- where their water comes out of their tap in this country. And then I had them make a small presentation of how they got water in their home country. And it really realized how ignorant I was. Of just so many differences and not just-- so many differences in the struggles they had to deal with. Uh, the taboos that, the rituals, the cultural associations, just with this one resource - water. And it really was so illuminating for me. I learned so much. It made me a better teacher because it gave me a better respect for things I take for granted. And I really think that's the thing a content teacher has to come to terms with. If you take so much for granted, or you assume so much, um, but really you gotta learn just as much as them.
Ken: To end our conversation, Mark had some very specific advice on how to build out ways to embrace newcomers and their families and their cultures in US schools.
Mark: You know when you're working with newcomers, or ESL students in general, they--they do share some similarities in that they're not at least proficient in English. And they're entering a new culture, a new country. So they need to--need to, you know, adjust to a lot of different things.
Uh, I think of one student who came from a Central American country, and just taking the time to get to know that student and find out a lot about their experience before arriving in the United States. And the struggles in their, both in their country and getting here. Um, I don't wanna go into too many personal details, but just as far as like losing family members. Leaving friends and family behind. Um, I think it's really important that you get to know your students on--on a more personal level so that you can really understand, uh, what they are going through and what are the challenges they are facing. Not just, you know, academically, but just as importantly, or maybe even more importantly, are the social and emotional aspects of--of what they are experiencing. And, you know, knowing a little bit about them and their country, their culture, and showing appreciation for their culture, their country, their language, goes a long way to building that rapport with our students.
We, each year, have a student-staff community dinner in which the students dress in their traditional clothing. They invite a staff member or anyone who works for the Atlantic City High school, to this dinner. Um, parents are also invited. It's a great communal activity where we can share in the students' successes and meet the parents and it's more casual, you know, where teachers get to interact with students, uh, outside of the classroom. So that event is a really wonderful event as well.
Um, we've been identified as a model program in the state of New Jersey. So we definitely welcome, uh, any school districts, any educators, administrators, to come visit. Uh, we're more than happy to—to show them around and, uh, introduce our program to them.
[end of Staff Perspective section]
[end of Atlantic City High School section]
Passaic School District: School 21, Sonia Sotomayor
Ken: The second half of this episode is a conversation with Passaic school district. I was able to meet with staff from both one of their middle schools and their district administration.
Yanel: My name is Yanel Mercedes Ortiz. I work at School 21, Sonia Sotomayor, and I do sixth, seventh, and eighth science and bilingual as well.
Alfonso: Eh, my name is Alfonso Blanco-Rivas. I'm at School 21, Sonia Sotomayor. I'm teaching sixth, seventh, and eighth grade bilingual Language Arts.
Ken: So, uh, the first thing I wanna ask you is...you both teach in both Spanish and English at different times, right?
Ken: So, what do you see as the advantage when you have students who are new to US schools in teaching in their native language, in Spanish, in your case?
Yanel: Okay, I’m Miss Ortiz. And my opinion in this is that it's very important for them to be strong in their L1 in order to be able to project their L2. They need to have a strong foundation in their L1, which can be their native language. It could be Spanish. It could be Filipino. It could be Russian. Whatever it may be.
Ken: Okay. Great. Great. [murmurs in agreement]
Alfonso: When the foundation in the Spanish language or in the native language is strong enough, the kids can transfer the--the concepts so easy that you will be amazed.
Ken: If a school is thinking about newcomers, let's say they have a group of students who are -- who are new. And maybe they've never had students, uh, before, who -- who are brand new to a US school and speak another language. What tips would give them for welcoming students to their school?
Yanel: Uh, I feel as though they need to be open to their culture. If you can implement the culture within the lesson itself, then you have -- you have a winning game there.
Well, I think that, uh, basically you having a -- a "getting to know you better" in the beginning of the school year, like to know where they come from, what type of dishes they like to eat. What are their favorite hobbies?
If you're able to see the child within itself as an -- as an individual unit, then you can build upon that.
Also, the multiple intelligence theory is very important. I like to do inventory surveys, which Mrs. Cummings, she started at School 4. And I'm gonna point her out for that reason. It's very important that teachers know where their kids come from and implement that ethnicity in the culture within the classroom and, all the time. That's what I do all the time.
I ask, like, "What do you -- where do you guys come from? Okay, what do you do in your country when it comes to this? How can we implement this? What words do you see that you actually have seen in the past?"
So I think that implementing the culture within the actual lesson will help the kids actually gravitate to the lesson. They're gonna be engaged. “That's --that has something to do with what I know. So now I'm gonna be engaged in the lesson as a whole.”
Alfonso: In today's world, with the technology that we have, there is no excuse for any teacher to adapt whatever lesson they have to the newcomers. It doesn't matter the country. It doesn't matter what some of them-- they went to school with different ways of teaching. But when they come here, we have to adapt to all of them.
[end of School 21 section]
District Administration Perspective
Ken: After this great conversation about classrooms and meeting newcomers' needs in them, we move to talk about how districts can serve newcomers at the systems and district level.
Tiffany: Hi, my name is Tiffany Allen. I'm principal of Sonia Sotomayor, School 21 in Passaic, New Jersey.
Gloria: Gloria Vargas, Director of Bilingual, ESL, and World Languages in Passaic.
Rachel: Rachel Goldberg, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction at Passaic Public Schools.
Ken: Great. Awesome. So, how do you build a school or school system that's friendly to new arrivals to the US?
Tiffany: This is Tiffany, um, Allen. For me as a school administrator, um, I felt as though it was important for our students that are new arrivals to be welcomed into an environment that they felt that-- they felt, number one, safe. That they felt that they had a voice. The programs and the opportunities that they have at the school.
For instance, uh, Sonia Sotomayor School 21 is a unique -- is in a unique situation. And the students that are here this year, they're in a unique situation because the school is brand new.
So many of our ELL students had the opportunity to participate in student government associations. I'm just tryin' to give you an example. And they ran for positions in student government association. And we encouraged them to do this because it gave them the opportunity for them to give their input. And for them be able to be more comfortable on the different activities that they wanted to see within the school. Basically, to become involved with the school community. On top of the instructional support they were receiving from teachers, in particular, the same teachers. All of them having the same teachers. That they would enjoy their experience here at school and it would be--it would be an easier transition for them.
Gloria: We also strive to provide an environment that is conducive to learning. So taking care of the social-emotional aspect of their lives. Because when they left their native countries, they might have left behind a---a supporting system. Family. Education. Friends. So, we need to compensate for that. So, not only the academics but also the social-emotional components of the student we--we strive to take care of.
Rachel: This is Rachel. I think from a district perspective, uh, building on what both Gloria and Tiffany said, we have to value that every student that walks into our door is welcomed as one of our students. Um, we don't ask questions. Um, we accept them as children that are ready to be educated. And part of our work becomes really trying to look at those experiences. So when we're developing, um, our goals and our plans for upcoming years and ongoing work, we're really looking at all facets of that. Not just for students that are new to the country, but students that are new to-- to the school or new to, uh, the city. Passaic has a long history of welcoming immigrant populations and so it's -- it's part of the fabric of this community is to welcome and extend our arms. And our schools, and our curriculum development, and our programs, are-- are built specifically with those pieces of the community, uh, as a, as almost like a critical piece of the fabric.
Ken: You know, some students come to school right on grade level or above, and they have a lot of strengths academically. Other kids may have strengths in other areas but may come with interrupted schooling. So, how do you balance serving both populations of newcomers, or newly arrived students?
Gloria: So this is Gloria, from the Bilingual Department. We have, um, the regular, uh, academic program for the students that are newcomers but are on grade level. And then, for the students that we call SIFE, or students with a formal education being interrupted at some point, then we have a program specifically for them where we try to provide all the--the tools, the resources, and differentiate their needs.
So, we expose them to the curriculum but at their level. And they also have the resources that all the other students have available, but we bring them to their level.
And then, at one point in the…we continuously assess those students. And when they are ready to exit that setting, then they will go and join the ELL students in the academic programs.
Ken: Great, and, uh, I know that one priority here that you've already talked about is bilingual support and bilingual education. What's the advantage of that for newcomers over another program that maybe is based in just English?
Rachel: So, this is Rachel. There's--there's a strong body of research that supports native language instruction when possible. Our system primarily supports Spanish language learners. We have students that speak Gujarati and then we have some very small numbers of students that may speak another language. And by small numbers I mean like one or two. We're not nearly as -- as diverse in language backgrounds as some other school systems, which gives us then the ability to follow that research model that, where possible, provide native language instruction to do just as our teachers had spoken about. Which is to establish, um, understan-- academic understanding and language and knowledge in the native language. And then use that as a critical transfer point into English language acquisition.
Gloria: Yeah, and just to, uh, add to what Rachel just said, uh, this is Gloria. Uh, we provide professional development in the terms of biliteracy. So teachers are equipped with, um, strategies for -- to assist the students to transfer it and bridge. And -- and -- and fill the gap from the native language to the English language. So when the students come in, as you said, being with all the concepts, the skills, and they are proficient in their native language, all they need is the language to be able to transfer those concepts. So we equip the teachers to help the students make that transfer through the biliteracy approach.
Ken: To close our conversation , Gloria shared about the immense potential that newly arrived English language learners have as they enter the doors of US schools.
Gloria: The three team members that we have in the bilingual-- in the Division of Bilingual, ESL, and World Language, they came as newcomers. They went through the school system. One of them in Passaic. And they are now supervisors and instructional chair for our department. So that, to me, is a major indication of how successful ELLs could become if they are provided with the tools and the strategies to become successful citizens.
[end of District Administration Perspective section]
[end of Passaic School District section]
Ken: I’d like to thank the Atlantic City and the Passaic City school districts for hosting me as we explored the topic of newly arrived English learners together. I'd also like to point out two professional learning network opportunities from the New Jersey Department of Education. The first is the December 17, 2019 NJEdPartners Twitter chat around newly arrived English language learners. It will be taking place at 8:30 PM [EST].
I'd also like to point out that New Jersey has model ESL and bilingual programs around the state, including Atlantic City and Passaic City. You are welcome to explore those programs by visiting the districts or contacting the districts. And all of their information is on the ESL-Bilingual page for the New Jersey Department of Education.
We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third-Tuesday Twitter chat.
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Thanks so much for listening.