School leaders aim to create a solid support system for all students, and a support system is especially necessary for English language learners (ELLs) who face a number of hurdles throughout their academic career. My district in Saugerties, New York, a rural town 100 miles north of New York City, addresses these obstacles with a variety of support services.
It’s important to note that we, like many districts across the United States, don’t have a bilingual program at this time, as our low numbers of ELLs of the same native language per grade level don’t mandate it. Whether or not your district offers bilingual courses, there are still many possible options for creating an optimal learning environment for this population of learners.
Here are some services that may be helpful to consider.
HOw School Leaders Can Support English Learners
Assess the professional support that ELLs have in their content classes. Ideally, ELLs should have support in all of their core classes: history, English language arts, math, and science. In addition, try to group ELLs in classes where there’s always a certified English as a Second Language (ESL) or bilingual teacher, if possible. Some schools with higher numbers of ELLs have their teachers dual certified in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages (TESOL) and the content area.
The challenge with having a dual-certified ESL-content teacher alone in a class is that ELLs have high needs. It’s very difficult for one teacher to fully support a large classroom of ELLs without the additional support of a co-teacher. It’s best if the ELL student to ELL teacher caseload doesn’t exceed about 30 (30 students that an ESL teacher oversees in total).
Assign a school counselor just for ELLs. This will help streamline issues, facilitate communication, and ensure that ELLs are placed in ELL-flagged classes where there’s support. The counselor can schedule all ELLs in classes that have a certified ELL teacher or a teaching assistant (TA) especially for these students. ELLs grouped together have the additional support of one another, which isn’t necessary but can be helpful socially and emotionally.
Designate a school translator and family advocacy worker. This is someone who works specifically with the parents and guardians of ELLs to ensure equity with communication and support services. This person can be responsible for translating forms and other written materials that are sent home and helping to build strong family–school relationships for all ELLs. They can also be instrumental in ensuring that all school buildings are welcoming of multilingual learners and their families.
Ensure that all events are accommodating to guardians of ELLs. Have translators available at orientation, open house, and parent-teacher nights. Alternatively, assign a staff member to accompany guardians throughout the event, and use a translation app to facilitate the conversations with teachers and staff. If this isn’t possible, multilingual student volunteers may be an option for support at the discretion of the principal.
Introduce new students to staff and peers who share their language. Communicating with others in a language other than English can give newcomers an added sense of safety and support.
Prepare welcome packets in appropriate languages. As newcomers arrive throughout the school year, ensure that they receive a detailed orientation. Give them a tour of the school with a translator (or at least using a translation app), and encourage them to ask questions. Assign the newcomer a student volunteer who can act as their host for the first week or month. The volunteer can receive community service hours for this work.
Have an ELL specialist or a TA walk them through the school on their first day to help ease their transition to new classes. Invite their teachers to partner the newcomer with a personable and empathetic classmate.
Provide regular professional development. Any professional development that’s expressly about supporting multilingual learners can be helpful. If the professional development is specifically designed for teachers in your district or building with an understanding of their specific ELL population, however, the information will likely be the most relevant.
Often the best presenter for such PD is the ELL specialist in your building or district because they will be most relatable to your staff.
Create opportunities for teachers to collaborate with the ELL specialist. Designate collaboration time for classroom teachers and personnel at every district conference day, for example. Schedule ELL teachers to have the same prep periods as their co-teachers.
Communicate about community service hours. Brainstorm with all teachers and club advisers who require their students to do community service about how these students can volunteer to support ELLs. For example, they could be conversation partners who meet weekly in the library or peer tutors who help ELLs after school or during study halls. Ensure that all students and staff are aware of these opportunities.
Verify that ELLs are offered appropriate accommodations. Accommodations throughout the school year may include extra time on tests and for some assignments at the discretion of the teacher, a separate testing location, translated materials, and oral translation if translated materials aren’t available. Share this information at a faculty meeting.
Offer an extra-help program after school specifically for ELLs. My school, Saugerties Junior-Senior High School, has an extended day program where students stay an extra 40 minutes three days a week for language support. This has been tremendously successful and appreciated by students, guardians, and faculty alike.
Inform all stakeholders about all pathways to graduation. This includes counselors, teachers, guardians, and students. Share this information, in their home language, at the beginning of the school year during orientation. Students should also have an opportunity to discuss these pathways with an administrator. As newcomers arrive throughout the year, they also need to receive this information.
In the end, decide what works for your school and district based on your budget, your staffing, and the specific needs of your ELL population. Continually advocate for more support, and be creative with the resources that you have.