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.

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