CLINTON — A large increase in the number of students with a first language other than English is prompting the district to look at options for an in-district bilingual education program.
According to district data, in the 2017-18 school year, Clinton had 74 students who were considered “English learners,” a number that rounds out to 4.2 percent of the district. Four years later, that number increased to 124 students, or 7.8 percent of the student body — even as the total number of students in the district declined.
Under Connecticut state law, any school that has at least 20 students in the same language group must provide a bilingual education program in that language. These programs are designed to last up to 30 months and are followed with supports to help students transition to all-English instruction.
Assistant Superintendent Marco Famiglietti said at the board of education meeting on Monday that over the last four years the district has seen such an increase in students who do not speak English as their primary language that it has crossed the threshold for requiring a bilingual education program.
In Clinton, the most common language other than English spoken at home is Spanish, followed by Portuguese. Other languages include Arabic, Farsi, French, German, Gujarati, Punjabi, Turkish, Ukrainian, Filipino and American Sign Language.
Famiglietti said that a growing number of people who speak Spanish and Portuguese have been moving to the shoreline area, mainly coming from Ecuador and Brazil.
“They come here because there is a strong network here to receive them,” said Famiglietti. “What I’ve come to know is they are calling home and saying ‘Clinton is a great place to raise your family. You should come.’”
The data shows that the increase is mainly happening at the elementary school level. There are 63 students at Joel Elementary School in Clinton who are considered English learners, compared with 36 at Eliot Middle School and 18 at Morgan High School, according to data from the district.
The increase in the number of English Language Learners is not isolated to Clinton. The trend is the same across the state. From 2017-18 to last year, the number of bilingual students increased by 4,100, despite there being 22,000 fewer students in the state of Connecticut overall. As of last year, English learners accounted for 8.3 percent of the total student population.
Bilingual students, Famiglietti said, sometimes struggle with the pace of lessons and speed at which instructors speak English, as well as a lack of knowledge in the subject matter, and not having anyone at home who can help them with homework.
Famiglietti also said that such students are more likely to come from poverty and to have been separated from parents and other family members. He said that these students often end up acting as translators for their parents or family members, which creates its own stress.
“That role reversal is extremely delicate and it puts tensions on families,” said Famiglietti.
Famiglietti told CT Examiner that the bilingual program would group English learners into age bands — 1st and second graders together, 3rd and 4th graders together, for example. The students would spend part of the day learning core course materials like reading and mathematics in Spanish, and then spend the rest of the day in the classroom with their English-speaking peers.
He said that the program would mainly serve students who have just arrived in the country. He estimated that 20 to 30 students at Joel Elementary would participate in the program. According to Famiglietti, students generally remain in bilingual education programs for 1-2 years.
According to Famiglietti, bilingual instruction is expected to be cost-neutral for Clinton schools. He said the plan would be to take the current English as a second language teacher at Joel Elementary and designate her as a bilingual teacher.
At the board meeting, Famiglietti underscored the district’s duty to provide for the needs of the students.
“I always say, yes, it’s a legal requirement, but we also have that moral and ethical responsibility,” said Famiglietti.