Between 2015 and 2019 the number of English Language Learners in Westbrook Schools increased from 5.9 to 11.9 percent of the student body. As of October, that’s 89 students spread across grades kindergarten through 12 entering school without fluency in English.
“We expected this population to rise, but it appears to have happened sooner than we thought,” said Patricia Ciccone, superintendent of schools in Westbrook.
Although Westbrook has seen the greatest increase of English Language Learners by percent in the region, a broader trend is evident. Old Saybrook’s population of English Language Learners increased from 2.6 to 4.8 percent and Lyme-Old Lyme’s from 0.6 to 1.8 percent.
As a whole, Connecticut has seen a 1.2 percent increase of English Language Learners over the same period, although some districts, including New London and East Lyme, have seen drops in enrollment.
Less than 1 percent of the students in East Haddam and Region 4 are considered English Learners.
According to both Ciccone and Amity Gross, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Old Saybrook Schools, the increase has pushed the districts to rapidly change their programming.
“Old Saybrook is fortunate to have grown in diversity in recent years. We have roughly 70 students learning English across our three schools,” Gross said. “The district employs one English Learner teacher and one tutor right now, and the Board of Education budget for 2020-2021 includes hiring an additional teacher to help meet our steadily growing needs.”
That teacher used to be a shared resource with Westbrook, Ciccone said, but this year the districts decided that the need was great enough to justify hiring an additional teacher.
“Our instructional philosophy mirrors that of the Connecticut Department of Education and focuses on educating students with their peers in general education classrooms, using high-quality instructional practices. Examples of these strategies include using visuals, like pictures, graphs, or timelines, promoting conversation with peers and pre-teaching key vocabulary,” Gross said. “Additionally, over the past five years, we’ve augmented our efforts to support teachers by increasing professional learning opportunities in this area.”
The challenge, Ciccone explained, is helping students build proficiency in English while the students complete required subjects areas, and the district has added several supports for English Learners in core classes.
“One of the areas that we are learning we need to do more in is really being able to give them immersion classes so that they’re getting support in their own language,” Ciccone said. “We have content-based English classes specifically for EL students and have begun offering sheltered immersion classes with translators present.”
In addition to the language component, 28 percent of the English Learner students in Old Saybrook are immigrants and 27 percent are identified as special needs.
“Some of our ELs arrive with limited educational background and it is difficult to determine an appropriate grade level status for them,” Ciccone said. “For our special needs English Learners, it could simply be because they’ve had difficulties in class because of the language barrier. We need to be sure that we are offering additional supports to these students and families as they transition to our town”
For the first time during the 2018-19 school year the state and federal governments recognized this growing trend by requiring that progress toward English language proficiency for identified English Learners be used as criteria in the overall school report card. English Proficiency, both oral and literacy, are now included as performance indicators in the Next Generation Accountability Standards. In other words, schools would need to demonstrate through testing that their English Learner students are making progress toward actually learning to speak, read and write in English.