First Person

First Person: Our stopgap strategies for helping long-term English learners aren’t good enough

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A new student at Scott Carpenter is learning English for the first time at the Adams County middle school.

My colleague, a bilingual paraprofessional, recently came up to me with a blunt question.

“Why does [student] have a para?” she asked. She knows that most students with that kind of one-on-one support have a severe disability, but the student she was asking about did not. He was a 10th grade student who had been in the country for three years.

I explained that because of the student’s limited English ability, he should have been placed in a bilingual program. But, for one reason or another, he was not and was sent to our school instead. A paraprofessional was given as compensation.

While paraprofessional support is better than nothing, our situation reflects a fundamental misunderstanding at the root of how New York City supports its most difficult population: long-term English language learners and students with interrupted formal educations.

Too often, we simply have more adults work with those students, instead of the right adults.

English learners are sometimes placed in classrooms with two teachers, one trained in special education. Supporting their learning often falls to the special education teacher, who has experience and training in meeting students’ individual needs and helping students who are behind.

For my first few years teaching, I agreed with this philosophy. I’m one of those special education teachers, and I already create different materials for students with different needs. It made sense.

What I’ve learned since is how wrong this way of thinking is. Although I am good at meeting students’ individual needs and working with low-level students, I do not truly understand the social, emotional, and academic process of language acquisition.

This year, my ninth grade class had a student, Joseph, who was new to the school after leaving New York to live in the Dominican Republic for several months. He had shown some ability to read and comprehend text in Spanish, but struggled to transition to written English. Joseph also had anxiety about speaking and writing — common for students who have been struggling to learn a language and who fear social ridicule or failure.

Recently, Joseph and I were discussing the text “Night.” When asked how the narrator describes himself, Joseph told me, “religious.” I prompted him to write down his answer. He stared at me. I told him to begin with, “He describes himself as …”

Slowly, Joseph picked up his pen and started to write, “Hi.” Then he stopped. He looked at me, then put the pen down. Joseph could see he had made a mistake, but didn’t know how to fix it. So he shut down.

I picked up his pen and wrote for him for the rest of the period. Once the anxiety of writing was removed, he was able to show some comprehension of the text. Over the long term, however, this is not a solution for Joseph, who needs more support in transitioning from Spanish to English, in writing and verbally. As a result, Joseph is often off-task, conversing with friends in Spanish instead of struggling through written English.

In the case of another student, Paulo, I’m not sure if he is making appropriate progress or if the support I offer is helping.

I provide him with English and Spanish versions of texts, expecting him to read in English and use the Spanish version to support comprehension of difficult passages. This seems to be working, as at least Paulo is completing some assignments. But I don’t know what the next steps are or what other social and emotional support would help him most.

Additionally, there is the question of time and resources. Because of the lack of Spanish texts available, I do all of the translations on my own. Each ELL student should have a daily language objective, where they learn how to use a specific word for a specific purpose, to support their language acquisition. But given the varied needs of the students in my classrooms, it would be nearly impossible for me to give each student that level of support.

Across the city, we are losing these students. In addition to academic challenges, many students with interrupted educations come to New York alone and are often traumatized by the experience or end up in shelters or foster care. Without having had consistent schooling, they struggle to sit for long periods of time or follow rules like asking to use the bathroom, which is unnecessary in most other aspects of life.

In addition to being behind academically, they are often older, making the social as well as the academic transition difficult. Moreover, because 21 is the age limit in New York public schools, they often need to make significant progress in less time than their peers.

When I think of Joseph and of Paulo, I’m constantly confronted with the fact that I lack the time, resources, and expertise to meet their needs. I do my best, but I know that these students are still at serious risk of becoming discouraged, disengaged, and dropping out of school. What we need are more programs, support, and training to help this very vulnerable population succeed.

This piece was originally published on the author’s blog, Learning Curves.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.