Learning the language: ELL students outnumber teachers 50-1

Staff photo by Hannah LaClaire Karen Kariger, one of the two English Language Learner teachers responsible for educating more than 100 students at Elm Street Middle School, shows two students during ELL Summer School what to do for a project. A number of the students Kariger works with during the summer will be her students next year, allowing her to forge early bonds with them.

NASHUA – Most days, Danielle Boutin leaves work feeling as though she has failed. As one of precious few teachers to serve the 179 English Language Learners at Ledge Street Elementary School, she sees between 70 to 80 students per day, balancing high-performing students with those who cannot hold a pencil.

When Boutin was only seeing 50 or so students per day, she felt confident that she was able to make a difference, that she was doing good work. But now, with a caseload that is only growing and the need to still see each child every day, it is hard to keep kids from falling through the cracks. Even the highest performing, most proficient English learners still need help, she said, and some of the students should really be seen twice a day, but there is only one of her to go around.

Boutin is not the only English Language Learner teacher in the district with a caseload that is becoming unmanageable. With nearly 1,300 ELL students in program and only 24 teachers to help them, the problem is growing. Those numbers mean each teacher is responsible for more than 50 ELL students.

The program: “It’s an imperfect system”

English Language Learners in Nashua make up roughly 10 percent of the student body, with 1,185 students who are considered “active” in the program, and an additional 113 who will be “monitored” for the next two years.

Currently, ELL programs are offered in both high schools, all three middle schools and most of the elementary schools. The exceptions are Broad Street, Charlotte Avenue, Main Dunstable and New Searles Elementary schools. Bicentennial Elementary School added its program last year after the ELL population grew to 61 students and no teacher.

Main Dunstable, with 25 students, will be the next school to get an ELL program, according to program director Robert Cioppa.

Among them, the students have 63 different native tongues. The most common is Spanish, followed by Portuguese. After that, the most common are:

 Telugu, an Indian dialect;

 Vietnamese;

Staff photo by Hannah LaClaire Older English Language Learner students work on a “wacky weather” unit. Having created their communities they dot on white “snow,” which will eventually resemble more of a blizzard.

 Tamil, spoken in India and Sri Lanka; and

 Arabic.

There are five levels of proficiency, determined by the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortium ACCESS test, which tests them on listening, speaking, reading and writing.

In the middle schools and high schools, the students have set blocks devoted to ELL, whereas in elementary school, they are usually pulled from the classroom in small groups. While the teachers are there to teach English, they try to coordinate with the classroom teacher to make sure the content learned in ELL supplements what they are missing in classroom time.

“It’s amazing what the kids can do — it’s amazing,” Cioppa said of their ability to pick up language.

The problem is that the students are coming from different places– literally and educationally. Some, Cioppa said, are coming from a private school in Colombia, whereas others might be refugees from Rwanda who have had no formal schooling.

“Some people say it takes eight to 12 years to really be fluent in the language,” he said, adding, “It’s an imperfect system, but we’re constrained by what we are able to do.”

The data: “We’re not keeping up”

For several years in a row, students taking the ACCESS test were testing out of the program at an annual rate of 18 percent to 21 percent.

“We were treading water there for a while,” Cioppa said.

Then, three years ago, the test moved online and students had a hard time adjusting to the new equipment, especially the headphones and microphones into which they now have to speak. The test out rate dropped to about 12 percent.

The New Hampshire Department of Education introduced another change in 2017, this time adjusting the way the test is scored. The exit criteria was raised from a 4.0 to a 5.0 and they would no longer use the domain score in combination with the composite score. Nashua’s rates plummeted to only 4 percent of students testing out. They were able to raise that number up to 6.1 percent this year.

With so few students leaving the program and a steady influx of new students, they “ballooned,” Cioppa said, adding, “it was a perfect storm.”

Case sizes for teachers increased to, on average, 50 to 1 and the program is more than double the size it was 15 years ago.

As a result, roughly 71.1 percent of the students are not receiving the recommended number of weekly ELL minutes based on their ACCESS score. On average, kindergarten and first-graders are short by 344.5 and 309.7 minutes, roughly six and five hours, respectively. Those in grades two through eight are missing roughly four hours of needed instructional time as well.

“We’re not keeping up,” Cioppa said.

This year, Superintendent Jahmal Mosley campaigned heavily during the budget process to add two more ELL teachers.

“These ELL kids — they are not ‘they,'” he said at the time, “they are ‘we.'” However, when the Board of Aldermen required the district cut back their proposed budget by nearly $1 million, ELL teachers, along with any other new staff members, had to be removed from the equation.

“We’re in a bit of a pickle,” Cioppa said.

The teachers: On the front lines

Just a few weeks before the end of the school year, Boutin had a new student join her team. A refugee, she was age-appropriate for sixth grade, but she had to be placed in a fourth-grade classroom. She had never before seen scissors, Boutin said, did not know words could be translated onto paper and gripped her pencil at the top.

Together, Ledge Street and Nashua High School South have most of the 110 refugees in the district, and through no fault of their own, these students present a different set of

challenges.

“If they don’t come in with a support system … it’s harder,” Boutin said.

While Boutin has not noticed an increase in student numbers related to Nashua becoming a “Welcoming City” in 2016, she said she does feel more connected to the community organizations that connect her students’ families to resources.

She works closely with the United Way of Greater Nashua, Catie’s Closet, International Institute and Ascentria Care Alliance, to name a few.

“The local agencies are doing a great job,” she said.

With such a large caseload it can be hard to find that time to connect to students as much as she might like while finding time to take care of the other problems; she often meets with parents before and after school.

Kristina Hedberg, an ELL teacher at Birch Hill Elementary School, is no stranger to this.

“We’re also like social workers sometimes,” she said, adding they often do things like bus the students to Greater Nashua Dental Connection for routine cleanings.

While Birch Hill may be more affluent than Ledge Street, Hedberg still manages 50 students as the only English Language teacher in the school.

She sees children in groups of six to eight, anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes, alternating between reading and group work to using the Imagine Learning online program on the computers. Forty would be a better caseload, she said.

“Sometimes, you can’t get to all the kids,” Hedberg said.

Some she sees every day, others she only sees twice per week. It is just her and she needs to determine the kids’ baseline needs.

Often, the need is more difficult to accommodate than just the sheer numbers. The mid-level to advanced students can be grouped together for their mutual benefit, but newcomers have to be entirely on their own. Many of these kids, she also is teaching how to read in the first place, let alone teaching them to read English.

One of the most important steps is to “interview” the parents to understand the child’s background and how much they know or do not know.

“You’d be surprised what the kids already know,” Hedberg said, even those who allegedly have no English whatsoever. “They’re little sponges.”

Hedberg is one of a few ELL teachers fluent in Spanish. Many, such as Boutin, speak only one language. They all teach English, starting out, mainly through the use of pictures, games and demonstration.

The students grow close to their English teachers, to the point that many of them express sadness when they test out of the program, Cioppa said, equating the teachers to “safety

blankets.”

“The first goal is to get them talking … and to build up their confidence as much as I can,” Boutin said, something valuable for a child no matter his or her native language. “Once they start wanting to be here, we can start learning,” she added.

As well as teaching, Hedberg also leads the ELL Summer School, which is open to all children in the program and helps to prevent some of the language learning loss that happens every summer. There are about 175 enrolled this summer, with about 150 to 160 attending each day. Numbers are up, she said, and this year, they had to add a second pre-K class.

Boutin and several other ELL teachers work at the camp during the summer, leading grade levels with themes such as wacky weather, geography and fairy tales.

It is available to all the students in the district, even those who do not have ELL programs at their home schools, and gives them something fun and educational to do during the summer.

“We do see a difference in the ones who do not come,” Boutin said in relation to language loss.

The job, for many of the teachers, is a year-round commitment.

Just last week, before the start of the day, Boutin sat down with a father and helped him fill out green card applications for his children, something they would not have been able to do together just one year ago.

“At the end of the day (the families’) experiences are remarkable,” she said. “To watch a family grow like that and master a community… if they can do it day in and day out, we can do it too.”

Hannah LaClaire can be reached at 594-1243 or hlaclaire@nashuatelegraph.com.