On her first day of seventh grade, Genesis Mejia recalls walking into her social studies classroom late, lost, and unable to communicate. Everyone turned around to look at her, and her teacher asked if anybody in the class spoke Spanish.
“I sat down, and they gave me a paper with things to rate from one to five, so they could get to know me,” said Mejia, who is now 14. “I thought, ‘How am I supposed to fill this out if I don’t know what it says?’”
Before moving from the Dominican Republic to Philadelphia, then 11-year-old Mejia was an honors student who skipped a grade and loved school. However, by the end of her first year here, she received a D in one of her classes and school felt like a chore. She said it took her over a year and a half to start feeling comfortable in the classroom again.
“I just didn’t know anything,” Mejia said. “The ESOL teacher didn’t speak any Spanish either, so nothing made sense.”
Mejia’s story is not unique. Twelve percent of children in Philadelphia schools are classified as English language learners (ELLs). English learners are students whose dominant language is not English, and their difficulties with the English language prevent them from being successful in the classroom.
But according to various experts, there are several things that school districts, schools, and educators can do to help English learners thrive.
Schools should train all educators on how to work with ELLs.
In Pennsylvania, the most popular ELL model uses English instruction with support for ELL students, according to Heidi Faust, the director of professional learning and research for TESOL. This can be challenging for students to learn a new language while keeping up with the rest of their schoolwork, she said.
According to Faust, the collaboration between the ESOL and core content teachers is essential because students usually spend most of their day in core curriculum classes.
“Often what we find is that teachers get maybe a little bit of training, and then they have other students in their classes, so the stakes are high,” Faust said. “So, they’re trying to manage accommodating for a student while the rest of the class goes on.”
To encourage this collaboration, Faust said that ESOL programs can benefit from schools training all staff on how to work with ELLs. She said it’s important for schools to assist educators in understanding the second language acquisition process, too.
“I think the big thing there is really understanding what’s appropriate for English learners and being able to implement that,” Faust said. “So implementing some aspects of universal design like graphic organizers, group work, and word banks — things like that — that work for everyone is one way that teachers can support students. It is really important for them to have a sense of what’s appropriate at each language level.”
Schools should collect data on their language learning programs to measure what is and isn’t working.
According to Maura McInerney, the legal director at the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, students who meet ELL requirements are entitled to a range of accommodations. Student accommodations vary, McInerney said, based on how they progress in their English learning on a scale from one to five.
“For example, an immigrant or a student with limited or interrupted formal education may need sheltered instruction, where students are actually in sheltered instruction receiving English language instruction all day, not interacting in terms of their core subjects that have equal support throughout their program,” she said. “That would be for a level one, newly arrived student.”
It is mandated on the federal level that ESOL students are entitled to equal access. However, one challenge is that it’s left to the school itself to decide what accommodations are best for each student. Therefore, McInerney encourages schools to collect data that tracks the success of different accommodations provided to English learners. She suggests that schools collect data, such as the training of core teachers, the number of instruction hours that ESOL support is available to students, and whether schools can modify their curriculum for ELLs.
“That’s a critical opportunity for all school districts — including the School District of Philadelphia,” McInerney said. “To identify what is working and for which students.”
For example, based on the data collected on student progress in the newcomer academy at Franklin Learning Center, it’s proven to be a successful approach for those students, McInerney said.
Schools should value multiculturalism, and they don’t have to spend a lot of money demonstrating that they embrace it.
Aside from appropriate language accommodations, Faust said that encouraging and valuing multiculturalism is an essential piece of successful ESOL programs. When students are encouraged to speak only English at school, it can lead to neglect for core pieces of their identity, including language and culture.
“That’s how students communicate with their families. That’s their history and connection,” Faust said. “It’s also a rich source of knowledge and culture. We don’t want students to lose that.”
While many schools don’t have the resources to create comprehensive bilingual learning programs, Faust said that successful ESOL accommodations don’t have to be expensive.
“Welcome signs in multiple languages are a good place to start,” Faust said.”But I think more so helping students to engage in the classroom… rather than just sitting them in the front of the room.”
For example, Faust said, schools and educators can use group work to encourage students to interact with one another. They can also create graphics for core classes to help English learners build their vocabulary.
School districts and schools must ensure that students see themselves reflected in what they’re learning.
Charesha Barrett, a former teacher and the founder of CHARP Education Consulting, tells school districts and schools to make sure they incorporate diversity into their curriculum. When students see themselves reflected in what they’re learning, they better connect in classroom environments, she said.
“If you want to reach every student, you have to make sure that you expose them to books and content in which they can see themselves,” Barrett said.
For example, Mejia said that she started to enjoy reading again during her freshman year at Kensington Health Sciences Academy. Her English teacher showed her “The Poet X,” a novel by Dominican-American author Elizabeth Acevedo.
“I felt like I was being represented,” Mejia said.
Affinity groups where students and faculty can have identity-based discussions are essential to embracing diversity.
Brian Johnson, the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at The Philadelphia School, said the school deliberately creates spaces for students and faculty to engage in meaningful discussions about topics like race, sexuality, and gender identity.
“I think one of the most important programs we do in order to bring about belongingness in the space — an environment for all people — is the idea of student and faculty affinity groups where we have race-based groups for the most part, but for our kids we also include an LGBTQ affinity group,” he said. “For adults, a lot of the time we use the affinity groups as training. We’ve used these groups as professional learning communities for the last few years.”
Johnson said that the groups serve as a safe space for the students and faculty to build community and vent when needed to facilitate healthy debate around race and differences in general.
State education departments can take the lead in implementing cultural competence in classrooms.
In June the California Department of Education released the first draft of an ethnic studies curriculum. It’s meant to serve as a guide for schools and educators in developing coursework that reflects a diversity of students. There is also legislation in the works that could make ethnic studies courses a requirement for high school and California State University students. The period for public comment on the proposed draft ended in August, and now administrators will move forward to assess what changes need to be made.
“We have received over 21,000 public comments, and I think it’s really important that we are being thoughtful about all of the feedback we’ve received,” said Stephanie Gregson, the Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction at the California Department of Education.”It’s also very important that we take the time necessary to create a high-quality ethnic studies model curriculum for our teachers and administrators because we are one of the first states to start this endeavor of creating a statewide model curriculum.”
In addition to measures to create more diverse curricula across the country by states like California, Oregon, and Washington – schools are adopting these values by creating departments dedicated to ensuring diversity is respected and nurtured.
First-person experience: Attending a school that actively supports multiculturalism can help students excel.
Despite Mejia’s challenges in middle school, she said that when she started attending KHSA — where she’s encouraged to embrace both her roots in the Dominican Republic and the interests she’s developed since moving to the United States —, she started to enjoy school again.
A few months into her freshman year, she began branching out and doing things she never imagined herself doing, such as martial arts, music, and soccer. She also joined groups that focus on social justice, like Youth United for Change.
“I am trying to get the most out of school as I can,” she said. “It just helps me develop better, and I’m really trying to encourage other people to do the same.”
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Editor: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Story Designer: Henry Savage / Translator: Kristine Aponte