By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — A decade ago, about thirty students were learning English as they attended Guilderland schools; today, there are 173. The languages spoken in their homes include Chinese, Korean, many Indian dialects, Turkish, Russian, Arabic, French, Bengali, Vietnamese, and Hebrew.
The English as a Second Language — ESL — program that teaches these students continues to expand.
“I say that with pride,” said Demian Singleton, Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for instruction, at the start of a presentation to the school board on Jan. 22. He conceded that the instruction takes a lot of resources and energy but concluded, “It’s a wonderful population of students.”
The students come to Guilderland because of jobs in the region, like those at the Nano Science Center and Global Foundries, said Marcia Ranieri, the instructional administrator for the ESL program who is also the supervisor for the district’s World Languages and Cultures.
“Many families are also coming to the U.S. to be closer to their relatives and escape dangerous conditions within their home countries,” she wrote in a 31-page report, evaluating the program for the board.
Guilderland now ranks third in the region, behind Albany and Schenectady, with the number of its English Language Learners, said Ranieri.
“Do you telephone China?” quipped the school board president, Colleen O’Connell, at the close of the presentation, commenting on the influx of students from abroad.
“We think word is traveling, our students are meeting with success,” Ranieri answered, stating that friends of families who have been in the ESL program are coming to Guilderland.
The board members in general responded with praise for both the program and the report, which several said, as the first program evaluation, set a high bar.
Answering questions from the board, Ranieri said, “We don’t have district funding.” She said Guilderland receives Title III funding, a federal grant program, amounting to $16,000 this year, and every other year gets federal immigrant funding, which was $42,000 last year.
Neil Sanders, Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for business, told The Enterprise this
week that the federal grant money covers the equipment, materials, and supplies for the ESL program. The
school district pays the salaries and benefits for the seven full-time ESL teachers; the district receives
BOCES aid for the two part-time ESL teachers from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
Last week’s presentation included a video, showing many happy students from different countries. And the report included surveys of the students, their parents, staff members, and graduates of the program — all with largely positive results.
The largest concentration of English Language Learners is at Guilderland Elementary, which has 77, followed by Westmere with 26. The high school has 22 and the middle school has 18.
Ranieri described the program as “free-standing.” The ESL teachers use a “sheltered English approach,” she said. Sometimes, they “push in” to regular classrooms to work with students and other times they “pull out” students to work together in groups. The teachers do not speak the many languages of the students they are teaching; they teach in English.
They work closely with classroom teachers and with the students’ parents.
Currently, the high school has one ESL teacher (Elizabeth Kelley) and the middle school has one (Stephanie Linders).
For the five elementary schools, Guilderland has three ESL teachers (Nora Upton, Laura Reddington, and Jeanne Lee), Westmere has one (Jennifer Politno), Pine Bush with 13 students in the program and Lynnwood with 15 students, share one teacher (Simon Levy). Two teachers from the BOCES (Ester Salasoo and Amanda Bucci) split three-quarters of a job to teach at Lynnwood, Westmere, and Altamont, which has two English Language Learners.
“They’re stretched for every single minute,” Ranieri said of the teachers, indicating the problem will only increase as the number of students does.
There has been a shift in demographics, said Ranieri. Chinese and Korean used to be the dominant native languages, she said, until recently.
There has also been a shift, she said, in the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, an indication of poverty. Currently, the percentage of Guilderland students receiving the lunches has increased to 9.15 percent, perhaps in part because of the ease of filling out application forms online, she said. The number of ELL students receiving the lunches has increased from 18 four years ago to 33 this year.
Ranieri requested that, for next year, an ESL specialist in Reading Recovery be hired to work with first-grade students who are struggling. Now, she said, it is hard to tell, for these students, if learning to read is an issue or if language acquisition is the cause of their struggles, and they can “fall through the cracks.”
If they were to be part of a Reading Recovery program, she said, research shows they would be on a par with or surpass native speakers.
O’Connell called Reading Recovery, where students get intensive one-on-one help learning to read “a miraculous program” and said applying it to ESL was a “brilliant idea.”
Ranieri credited Allan Lockwood, the principal at Guilderland Elementary, with putting forth the recommendation.
Board member Catherine Barber, however, said she was “surprised” by the recommendation to hire an ESL specialist for Reading Recovery since she didn’t see anything in the report that indicated a need for that.
Singleton responded that it is “not a new issue” and said it is “a significant challenge…to accurately diagnose…and prescribe effectively.”
Students are screened into the ESL program when they enter the school district as a questionnaire is filled out, asking if a language besides English is spoken at home. English Language Learners are given a test within the first 10 days of school. They also test out of the program.
“Often times, the ESL classroom is a revolving door,” said Ranieri.
Most Guilderland students who are serviced by ESL test out within two to three years, her report says; only nine students have been in the program longer than that, often due to additional learning needs.
Other steps that Ranieri recommended for “continuous improvement” include web-based communication for staff, continued workshops for parents, and interactive technology for students.
She also recommended more “push-in services” with students being clustered in classes. And, finally, Ranieri spoke of the need to raise community awareness, and touted the end-of the year ESL Extravaganza where the students and their families, along with others in the community, come together to share a feast of native foods.
Ranieri’s report included the surveys given to ESL students at each level. Elementary students, for example, by circling either frowning or smiling faces, showed they overwhelmingly liked the ESL program and their teachers helped them with reading and writing, as well as listening to them and making them feel safe.
Middle-school students were equally positive in their answers and the report also included written responses like this one: “I love ESL because I get to eat lunch here and have fun and learn and I get to talk to friends here and watch movies and play games and take tests, and get any help I need.”
Similarly, all of the 11 high school students surveyed said they liked ESL and one wrote, “Whenever I have a problem with anything I get the solution from [my teacher]. She is the person who can make me happy in any situation. I am in my element when I am with her.”
Fifty-six of the parents who answered the survey said the ESL program helped their child; two answered they didn’t know. All said there children’s English skills were better because of the program.
Twenty-five of the 26 surveyed graduates of the program said they liked ESL; 18 of them are currently at a four-year college with three at two-year colleges.
“ESL made me feel comfortable living in America and going to an American school,” wrote one. “The ESL teacher was also kind and generous so she made me happy to go to American school.”
Another wrote, “My time in ESL let me touch English, feel English and think in English; after that, I become to love English and try my best to be a good speaker.”
Finally, a student who spent two years in the program wrote, “It was the most important and beautiful memory I had in my life in America. It helped me learn a lot of things such as English and social skills.”
Staff, including teachers, counselors and administrators, was also surveyed. The great majority said the ESL teacher was accommodating, advocated for students, and helped them perform better. Many wanted more training (71 said yes, 38 said no, and 7 didn’t know) related to English Language Learners.
“With the increase of jobs in the area in the field of technology,” wrote one staffer, “I believe our ELL population will only continue to grow. Therefore, ELL professional development should be mandatory for all educators in the district, as ELL students deserve the same quality instruction as our English-speaking students.”
The board’s vice president, Gloria Towle-Hilt, a retired Farnsworth Middle School teacher, said that, during her last year of teaching, she had a class where five out of 25 students didn’t speak English. “I was floored how quickly they began speaking,” she said, praising the program. “To me, the gift is so much greater…the way they connect us to the outside world.”
She asked Lockwood to comment.
“One of the most fantastic things about our building,” he said, “is there’s such a range of culture and wealth of life experiences. I think all of our students benefit.”
He went on to say he has rarely encountered discrimination at Guilderland Elementary School. Of students’ having friends from different countries, he said, “That’s what’s normal to them.”
Despite “a host of instructional issues,” Lockwood concluded, “The reward more than justifies anything we put into it.”