Photo: The candidates for School Committee: (from left) O’Mahony, Prestwich and Bicer.
Here is the Question of the Week (QW) for the School Committee candidates:
The number of students coming into the Belmont school system from outside the US or who speak a language other than English is growing as is the demand for educators to teach ELL students. With the understanding that the committee is a policy-making body, do you have any plans/programs that you believe will help integrate students more efficiently into our schools.
I am in awe when I think about how diverse our community is; it’s wonderful! This does make it hard, though, for educators to keep all of the children learning at the same pace due to the challenges facing those whose first language is not English. It would be most productive to consider the pressures regarding this issue, prioritize by impact and ability to alleviate, and identify ways to improve the high-risk areas while keeping the best interest of the children and faculty in mind as well as the budget constraints.
I am not running for School Committee with an agenda, nor am I armed with an arsenal of answers. Rather, I am running with a vision of working collaboratively with the School Committee and other committees/town departments to identify the best solutions to the problems we are facing with a thoughtful and fiscally-aware approach. Along with that, always keeping in mind that the main driver is to sustain, support, and enhance the high quality of our education system that the faculty and support staff produces in Belmont each and every day.
The number of students who do not speak English as their native language (English Language Learners or ELL) has increased from 95 to 261 in Belmont over the last six years. These children face unique challenges. The percentage of ELL or kids who were once ELL who graduate from high school is dramatically lower than for native English speakers. Early intervention to mitigate the disadvantages they face is, therefore, crucial.
My understanding is that Sheltered English Instruction (SEI) is regarded by education professionals as the most effective way to teach ELL. The term “sheltered” dates back to the 1980s when ELL was taught in separate classrooms. Today, SEI refers to teaching techniques that are used to make content accessible to ELLs in a mainstream classroom. The dual goal is to teach ELL grade-level content while increasing their English proficiency. Strategies include allowing students extra time to formulate answers, simplifying teaching language and using visuals to reinforce the main points of the lesson.
Implementing SEI in Belmont classrooms requires clustering ELL into groups or teams. Another key requirement is to have Belmont teachers become proficient in SEI techniques. It will be necessary for increasing numbers of Belmont teachers to become SEI certified to support these children. As part of the RETELL (Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners) initiative, Massachusetts requires that all teachers who have one or more ELL in their classroom attend an SEI Endorsement Course within one year of being assigned the student.
Integrating ELL students into our community and schools is important because integration and language mastery often go hand in hand. If we are able to move students to proficiency more quickly there is less cost to the district and less chance for the student to fall behind academically.
Integration for school-aged children must begin with and include their families. ELL families face challenges everywhere from figuring out how to register for school, to understanding school procedures, to knowing how to participate in Second Soccer. Belmont is fortunate to have an active and engaged parent population, and we can use this resource through the organization of the PTO to establish integration opportunities. For instance, we could work to match new ELL families with English-proficient families of the same first language, giving the newcomers a sympathetic place to ask questions and learn about the workings of the town. Let’s also look to the Recreation Department to target outreach to ELL families. Sports, free play, and other out-of-school activities are fertile times to learn English.
Finally, let’s not overlook the enormous leaps forward in translation technologies. Many are available at little to no cost and could be utilized both in the classroom and with families. Translation services represent a significant portion of the district’s ELL budget. New technologies may allow us gain some savings while at the same time increasing the amount of translated material we are able to produce.