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  • Allies in Caring, INC.

English Language Learners struggle

By Joseph F. Berenato. Mar 5, 2021. Article originally published at the Hammonton Gazette.

HAMMONTON—Since the Hammonton Public Schools District first switched to full remote learning in March of 2020 in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), students of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds have been struggling to adapt to the new models of online and hybrid learning, according to district officials.

One group facing a great degree of difficulty involves English Language Learners (ELLs), also known as English as a Second Language (ESL) students.

Hammonton Board of Education President Sam Mento III said that the board has made reaching those students a priority.

“We have quite a few ESL—English as a Second Language—speakers and Spanish-speaking staff to reach out and mitigate that, along with all our outreach programs. As a board, we have tasked the administration to come up with a plan to do the best job they could for community outreach, especially to our English as a second language students and families,” Mento said.

Thomas Fischer, the District Supervisor of ELL/Bilingual and World Language, explained some of the efforts that have been taken by the district.

“For families of English Language Learners, the first line of communication is typically their children’s bilingual or ESL teacher, many of whom are proficient in both Spanish and English. For monolingual English-speaking teachers, several district translators/interpreters are available to facilitate both oral and written communication. The district also employs a significant number of bilingual—Spanish/English—instructional aides to assist with instruction in bilingual/ESL classrooms as well as with online instruction and parent communication,” Fischer said.

Fischer said that, during this school year, the district utilized federal Title III funding to create a new position—a Bilingual Parent Liaison—in each of its four buildings.

“The liaisons act as a go-between among school staff and families, providing support to parents of ELLs by assisting them with obtaining school and/or community-based resources, navigating the district’s online instructional platforms, troubleshooting basic technology issues and conducting follow-up with parents regarding struggling students whose participation has been inconsistent,” Fischer said.

Dr. Michael Nolan, the principal of Hammonton Middle School, explained further.

“The position is dedicated towards having one specific teacher that speaks English and Spanish, and they’re given a stipend to reach out to these parents and speak to the parents and make sure the parents understand what we’re doing this year and what’s required of the kids,” Nolan said.

Fischer said that the district has been making a maximum effort to better assist the students.

“Given the challenges that educators and families have been facing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers, aides and liaisons have been busy all school year with outreach efforts. Some have resorted to strategies such as making home visits and morning wake-up calls to students in an effort to improve participation rates and grades,” Fischer said.

The district has also been assisted by the efforts of local community organizations.

Myrna Santiago, the public relations representative for the Puerto Rican Civic Association and a founder of HELP—a 501(c)(3) charitable organization—serves on the Schoolwide Planning Team with Nolan and has been helping the district find families who were previously unaware but nevertheless in need of the free meals the district provides.

The district’s food service department distributes multiple-day packages of breakfast and lunch on Wednesdays. Any family that cannot pick up these meals can have them delivered by the district’s transportation department.

“A lot of the Hispanic families don’t know about that ... When I find a family, I add the people that don’t have vehicles or don’t have transportation to get there, and the school will deliver it for free. So far, all the families that I’ve added have all been Hispanic,” Santiago said.

Santiago said that she has been able to identify in-need Spanish-speaking families through a variety of methods.

“I belong to so many groups on Facebook; I find them that way. I do the food bank with Sheriff Eric Scheffler once a month. I have to go to the cars and register them, and while I’m registering them I tell them about the food pantry that we have here in town. When I talk to the people in the cars, I give them my number and say to call me; that’s how I’ve gotten a few people. Other people tell each other. I say that if you know of somebody who cannot get to the school, let me know. Call me. Give them my number. That’s how I’ve been finding them,” Santiago said.

Santiago said that she has also been working with such families in an effort to overcome language barriers and technological divides.

“What I do with all these Hispanic families, I text them all the Spanish information I find on Facebook, because they don’t have Facebook. A lot of them don’t know; they’re not familiar with all of that,” Santiago said.

Ivette Guillermo-McGahee, from Allies in Caring and the Hammonton Health Coalition, said that, in her experience, part of the technological divide comes down to a lack of know-how.

“If the parents are savvy with technology, then they can help their children. If the parents don’t know, then nobody can assist the kid, and the kid is left to navigate alone,” Guillermo-McGahee said.

Guillermo-McGahee said that her organizations have been attempting to help the families bridge the technology gap, including connecting them with individuals at Stockton University.

“Stockton has a mentor program with students that also speak Spanish, so we have referred them to that program so that they can also help them access the technology,” she said.

Guillermo-McGahee said that her organizations have a network of “connectors” as well as a helpline that families can utilize.

“Sometimes parents call us at our helpline, or people that know us email us on our Facebook. They share their concerns that the kids are not motivated to participate in the class, or it is very difficult for the kids to understand the lesson, or the parents have to work and they leave the older siblings to help the younger siblings with accessing and keeping track of their work. The older siblings are sometimes busy with their own work, so they cannot assist the younger siblings,” Guillermo-McGahee said.

According to Guillermo-McGahee, another obstacle facing these families is the fact that many parents are essential workers who become infected with COVID-19.

“We have lots of families—many of whom are undocumented or the employer doesn’t provide health insurance—who are not able to be taken care of. So many of these families, the whole family has been sick, and I don’t think those families are being accounted for. We have families that we have assisted with food and even meals that the connectors cooked for them because nobody in the family was in a condition to cook or do anything,” she said.

Guillermo-McGahee noted that “there’s a lot to do” to assist the families so that students can better thrive in school.

“I don’t think we are doing enough to help these families. Some of the families I know just give up. There’s a gap. It’s difficult to assist; you have to go to the home and help them in the home and teach them how to navigate in the home, or have them come to the office. With my organization, we do have providers that are willing to go to the home and help the family. We provide the PPE so they are protected and they feel comfortable,” she said.

Guillermo-McGahee said that she has contacted Superintendent of Schools Robin Chieco to see what assistance Allies in Caring and the Hammonton Health Coalition can provide to the district.

“We are willing to do more to support them ... I imagine that, with confidentiality, it’s difficult for the school to share the names and numbers of people, unless they give them permission, so the logistics are a little bit difficult. What the superintendent mentioned to me is that they are asking the teachers, and they are paying the teachers for tracking the kids who are not showing up to classes. That’s something that we can use the connectors for; we can help with that. We are exploring that: how do we work with the school to help track those kids who are not showing up, to communicate with the families?” Guillermo-McGahee said.

Perhaps the largest obstacle, according to Guillermo-McGahee, is convincing the students to ask their teachers for the help they need.

“I think, the history of feeling unwelcome, or not included, or discriminated, makes it difficult for the kids to ask for help because they don’t want to be rejected or are afraid, so they’d rather not ask. That’s another challenge that we have: educating the community that they do need to ask, and they need to take the risk to ask,” Guillermo-McGahee said.

For her part, Chieco said that the district is always open to exploring new avenues of assistance.

“We are constantly looking at our programs to identify additional resources and supports that we can provide to our students,” Chieco said.

Editor’s Note: On February 26, Chieco sent a letter home to parents indicating that the district is considering reopening schools to five days a week. Chieco’s letter stated, “Our goal is to phase in the increased in-person instruction to provide a sustainable schedule for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year...

“The following tentative timeline has been developed:

“• March 1, 2021 - Bring PreK 5 days per week, eliminating Remote Wednesdays for these students

“• March 8, 2021 - Bring special education inclusion hybrid students in grades K-12 4 days per week

“• March 15, 2021 - Bring 12th grade students 4 days per week to close their high school careers as a group

“• April 12, 2021-Additional changes based on survey responses and current health conditions for the 4th marking period.”

Second Editor’s Note: This story was produced thanks to a reporting grant facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and funded by New Jersey Children’s Foundation.

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