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Staff photo by Don Himsel Eva Skardal begins Wednesday's English Language Learner workshop at Nashua High School North.
Thursday, July 1, 2010

City teachers learning to work with foreign speakers

Michael Brindley

In her classroom at Fairgrounds Elementary School last year, second-grade teacher Angelina Freitas had several students who were in the process of learning English. There were eight or nine students, as she recalls, but one – a young boy – was limited in his English proficiency.

“It was frustrating not being able to help him,” said Freitas.

This summer, Freitas is one of 16 teachers in Nashua taking part in a summer institute designed to help teachers understand how to work with English Language Learner students.

Last year, the district had 954 students receiving ELL services, a program formerly known as English as a Second Language. That is four times the number from 1995, when the district had 244 students.

When those students aren’t in their ELL program for part of the day, they are in regular classrooms, learning with other students. It is up to teachers like Freitas to make sure all of the students are picking up the material, regardless of language barriers.

The problem, said ELL director Robert Cioppa, is that most regular classroom teachers do not have ELL training. The summer institute, being held for the first time this year, is designed to get more teachers the background to work with those students, Cioppa said.

Working with a mixture of English-speaking and ELL students in a classroom requires a certain type of approach, he said.

“It’s not like you have to do things completely different but have to be aware of some of their needs,” Cioppa said. “You need teachers to make the material hands-on with lots of visuals and getting kids engaged.”

After two days of training this week at Nashua High School North, the teachers will begin next week by working in the district’s summer school for ELL students, either at Ledge Street Elementary School or North. The summer school is voluntary for ELL students and is a way to keep their progress going over the break, Cioppa said.

Freitas hopes she can start next year with some new strategies toward helping ELL students.

“I want to learn how to get them more comfortable, more confident in using the language,” she said.

Teachers from Nashua, Manchester and Concord are taking part in the program. Those three cities combined serve 73 percent of the state’s population of students with limited English proficiency, according to New Hampshire Department of Education data.

There remains a sizable achievement gap between ELL students and their peers.

On the New England Common Assessment Program administered last fall, 58 percent of third-grade students with limited English proficiency were proficient in reading, compared to 80 percent among all students.

At North on Wednesday, the Nashua participants met with Tina Proulx, who works in the Manchester School District. Proulx is an ELL coach for the Nashua teachers. In the back of the room, books, toys and puzzles for ELL instruction were spread out on a table.

Eva Skardal, an ELL teacher at Dr. Crisp Elementary School, will also be helping during the institute, giving teachers new ideas and strategies.

Skardal has been an ELL teacher at Dr. Crisp for eight years. She said there is still a common misconception that rural states like New Hampshire don’t have to deal with ELL students.

“It’s not just Arizona, Texas and California any more,” Skardal said. “These students are everywhere.”

Cioppa said most of the district’s ELL students were born in Nashua. There are 48 languages spoken by students, from Albanian to Visayan, which is spoken in parts of the Philippines.

Seven languages are spoken by just one student each, including Burmese, Bosnian and Sindhi, which is spoken in Pakistan. Skardal said one problem is that teacher training programs don’t do enough to prepare for a classroom with ELL students.

Cioppa said no district funds are being spent on the program. Teachers are receiving a $2,500 stipend for the 80-hour program, which is funded through a partnership between the state Department of Education and the University of New Hampshire in Manchester. Participating teachers will receive graduate credits and will be eligible for ELL certification.

Freitas is taking part in the institute with several of her colleagues from Fairgrounds, one of the more diverse schools in the city.

Lindsay Ward, a physical education teacher at the school, said she hopes that one outcome of the workshop is better outreach with parents in the Hispanic community.

“One of the big things in our restructuring plan is parent outreach,” Ward said.

Eligibility for ELL services is determined by the ACCESS test, which is given each year, Cioppa said. When students progress and score at a certain level, they move out of the program but are still monitored, he said.

Cioppa said the district’s ELL numbers are expected to drop next year, as many students tested out of the program this year.

The Learning Curve appears Thursdays in The Telegraph. Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or