WESTBROOK – David Moisan’s middle school language arts class seems fairly typical: Nine students read out of short chapter books and play computer games aimed at aiding literacy.
The big difference is that these students are from all over the world and are studying English as their second language.
Westbrook schools have 25 different languages spoken throughout the district, including Persian, Somali, and the most widely spoken, Arabic. A snapshot from the Maine Department of Education shows Cumberland County has the most language diversity in the state, with 66 languages spoken throughout the public school systems.
“It adds to the diversity and we can really say we’re a global society. It really opens up some opportunities in the classroom,” Superintendent Marc Gousse said.
Educators say the students bring a more worldly sense to the historically white community and make global problems, like war-torn countries, famine and political disputes, seem closer to home.
“As soon as boots are on the ground, we see the spike,” said Alyssa Michie, part-time English Language Learner teacher at the middle school, explaining the rising trends in Middle Eastern students.
But these new students create a problem for the department, whose goal is to integrate the foreign students into the classrooms as easily as possibly without them losing understanding of what is being taught.
“More students are entering our schools with low English proficiency and they have to learn English as well as content area subjects. This becomes particularly problematic at the middle and high school levels because the content expectations are higher than students’ ability to understand the language,” Bonnie Violette, director of special services in the Westbrook school department, said in an email. “Creating a schedule that is conducive to providing adequate support is an issue that ELL staff struggle with at every school.”
Congin and Canal elementary schools each have one full-time English Language Learner teacher and some 30 students. Saccarappa has one full-time and one part-time English Language Learner teacher for the nearly 50 students enrolled in the program. The middle school has two full-time teachers, and one full-time and one part-time ed tech for 94 students. The high school employs two full-time teachers and two ed techs, along with one part-time teacher, for its 62 students. The increase throughout the city’s schools will almost certainly have an impact on the upcoming budget.
Violette said students benefit from attending the core classes, as well as receiving small group instruction, but there simply isn’t enough time to provide all the support during the school day. And, she says, there is another problem: “Securing additional resources to keep up with the increase in population will be challenging.”
Getting the students in the classroom allows for better results in literacy, and immersion has been shown to boost understanding in a native language. It also means more emphasis placed on literacy and understanding at a base level.
In Westbrook, the 10 full-time and part-time teachers and three full-time educational technicians are seeing exponential growth for incoming students who show a need for English Language Learner classes. Through ACCESS, a federal program that tests English Language Learner students, a scale ranging from 1-6 was created to help categorize the students because of the sheer variety of languages and literacy levels. Students testing in category 1, or “entering” level, aren’t literate in their native tongue and generally have little educational background. Students on level 6, or the English proficient tier, can test out of the English Language Learner classes and into the general school population.
Violette said students who score below a 4 on their ACCESS test receive more “intensive” instruction than those with higher scores.
English Language Learner teachers teach other classes, like math and social studies, but all the classes are taught in English with the goal of language proficiency an underlying thread in all activities.
There are a few ways English Language Learner teachers interact with their students. For those in need of lots of one-on-one attention, students will either stay in an English Language Learner classroom throughout the day, or have a teacher or ed tech go with them to class to help them in a range of ways, including giving further explanation on subject matter or defining a new word.
In Moisan’s math class, numbers may be universal, but equations are not. Class starts each day with a review of vocabulary words like “equation,” “variable” and “constant.”
“It’s a lot more about showing and exposing them repeatedly to vocabulary. Even the simple things at the start of class. I show them an equation and we read it out loud, ‘Six plus seven equals 13.’ They read that and sometimes mix up the signs,” Moisan said.
In the elementary schools, Gousse said, the teachers use flash cards to help sound out letters and learn their names by sight. Students are often started out in classes like physical education, art and math – subjects that allow more visible learning, which helps younger students grasp the concepts introduced in the classroom.
“We help with anything, just like how to use headings and bold print words in their test books,” said Michie. “Sometimes the Arabic students will flip the directions when they’re reading.”
Dale King, a part-time English Language Learner teacher at the high school, said sometimes the process must start at square 1, even if a student should be in the age range looking at graduation.
At the high school level, students receive credits for every class they take and pass. Foreign students who come to Westbrook with no transcript and little education are, despite their age, essentially freshmen.
King said by the time students get to the high school, they generally have had some English because many students come to the United States at a much younger age.
For students starting with no English background, King has a momentous challenge: getting students to be proficient before they age out of the school system at 20.
“From there they can go on to get a GED or continue education through adult learning,” King said.
Many of her former students do continue with their education, with approximately 80 percent in English Language Learner classes graduating from high school with either a degree or GED. But getting to graduation is a long, hard road, even with constant improvements to the way teachers approach their subject matter, by combining technology with basic skills. King can only think of one student who dropped out in the past few years, but she does see students in their fifth and even sixth year of high school.
King said she had 10 new students this year, all with very little English knowledge. These students work in a separate classroom with an educator, sometimes King, who helps them with their math, physical education, art and science class work. The students also have double periods of English each day to help with their reading, writing and literacy.
“No one student is exactly like another one in the class. They all come from a variety of situations,” King said.
While many of the educators speak different languages, the school does not rely on language as a qualification to teach these students. The district uses a translator, either through a phone system or a person when needed. Translators, mostly used for meetings, cost around $100 per hour. According to Violette, so far this year the district has used a translator 39 times for parent-teacher conferences and other school events.
Many students have parents who don’t know any English or speak mostly their native language at home. This can make it difficult for teachers and administrative staff at the school to bridge the gap into the home. Gousse said when he sends an announcement, that memo is often translated in the students’ native tongue before going home with them.
At the beginning of the year, all new students are tested on their English proficiency and based on the need, teachers make up a class schedule to reflect the needs of most of the students. Between December and Feb. 1, students are tested again using the ACCESS test, which measures a student’s progress. To test out of the English Language Learner program, students must pass the test with a 6, the English proficient grade. King and Moisan agree reaching that proficiency level on the test is difficult and could cause trouble for even some native English-speaking students.
In 2004, Westbrook school had 27 limited-English-proficiency students. Just two years ago, the number reached 165. Now there are 265. Moisan said the number of students enrolled in English Language Learner programs has grown even since the beginning of the school year.
When the students arrived on the first day of school, Violette and her team knew they didn’t have enough educators to handle all the new learners, so the school department approved a new teacher using money already in the budget set aside for a special education teacher that was not needed.
Another ed-tech position is now open, which, Gousse said, they hope to fill before the end of the year.
Under Title III, a federal grant program to improve education, Westbrook receives approximately $20,000 per year for the English Language Learner program, but, Violette said, that money isn’t enough to even hire another full-time staff member and instead is often used to cover the translation services.
If trends continue, more English Language Learner teachers will need to be hired, or current teachers will need to be trained to help in a regular classroom setting. Both options would cost the school department money in an upcoming fiscal year that is already working with an expected tight budget.
Violette said there will be proposals for new English Language Learner positions in the upcoming budget.
“Our initial guidance is there will be no increase in spending. We’ll start out at 0,” said Jerre Bryant, city administrator, on the budget outlook.
But, Violette knows the school department will find a way to cover the needs of the students, just as it did at the beginning of this school year.
“We really enjoy having the students here. They bring a lot of culture and new traditions to us. We see these students as a really valuable asset to our community,” said Violette.