Tapping data and community partners to help English Language Learners

In Massachusetts and Minnesota, City Connects staff are helping schools meet the needs of English Language Learners (ELL). 

“In Salem, the predominant language that’s spoken, other than English, is Spanish,” according to Ellen Wingard the City Connects Program Manager in Salem, Mass., where 31.2 percent of the district’s 3,620 students speak a first language that isn’t English, and 13.2 percent are ELL students.

“We also have a pretty large Portuguese speaking population and a growing Albanian population and some of our students speak Arabic.”

So, when Salem’s language acquisition teams meet monthly to review the needs and progress of ELL students, City Connects Coordinators are at the table. 

“The coordinators are prepared to talk about any mitigating factors for language development,” Wingard explains. “They share critical data about a student’s family, health, and social/emotional wellbeing.” 

Coordinators use the information they have gathered from whole class reviews, student support team meetings, and personal contact with students and their families. 

“It’s been exciting because coordinators are highlighting crucial components of these students’ development.” 

This work also helps fulfill the requirements of Massachusetts’ LOOK Act — An Act Relative to Language Opportunity for Our Kids – which was signed into law in 2017 and gives schools more flexibility in meeting the needs of English learners. 

Once language goals have been set for a student, coordinators can add this to the City Connects information they collect. Coordinators can then follow up to see how a student’s language development is going and if learning is being affected by the other domains – academics, health, family, and social/emotional behavior — that City Connects supports.

This makes it easier for a coordinator to see if, in addition to in-school services, a student should be connected to other resources such as a special education evaluation conducted in their own language or an afterschool programs where they can practice English, connect with peers, or receive homework help. 

“We’re trying to make sure that we’re integrating services and not duplicating them and not missing anything,” Wingard says. “It’s really about the coordinators’ ability to contribute crucial information to boost student achievement.” 

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“Two of the coordinators told me that they needed more English Language Learner help,” Laurie Acker, the City Connects Program Manager in Minnesota, says. 

Among the top languages spoken in Minnesota besides English are Spanish, Somali, Hmong (there’s a large Hmong community in St. Paul), and Karen, which is spoken in lower Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma), and in Minnesota by immigrants from that region. 

Given these demographics, Minnesota schools have seen widespread growth in the language diversity of their students. 

So Acker went out and found two community partners who could provide help, Hamline University and St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.

Professors from Hamline’s English-as-a-Second-Language department have met with coordinators and teachers in City Connects schools to explain sheltered language instruction, ways to teach in English while also providing context and support for English learners. Coordinators use these techniques when they work with students in small groups.

“Many of these schools will not be able to afford a full-time ESL teacher, so it’s really important that we have mainstream teachers who are trained on how to teach English Language Learners,” Acker says. 

 At St. Mary’s University, Acker asked graduate students enrolled in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program to become interns in City Connects schools. They are supervised by a licensed English Language Learner teacher. 

Acker has also recruited Spanish-speaking volunteers who work as translators in school and help communicate with parents. 

Like Salem, Minnesota keeps track of students’ language progress, adding it to the larger picture generated by City Connects’ whole child approach.

Next on Acker’s agenda: she plans to reach out to other local universities to get more support for City Connects schools. 

“We’ve realized this is a priority because our schools continue to enroll more English Language Learners,” Acker says. 

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 We are excited about our work with English Language Learners because we know it’s effective. As our website explains, “While all students who were continuously in City Connects schools from grades 1 through 5 had significantly greater improvement over time in Reading scores than students who were never in City Connects, the positive effects were largest for English Language Learner (ELL) students.” 

In language-diverse communities, we work to get the right resources to the right students in the right language at the right time. 

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