Schools cope with numerous languages among students

WILTON — The complexities of coping with a student’s ability to understand his or her second language is not typically the first thought of a classroom teacher.

Ask Mary Moran, one of Wilton’s two ELL (English Language Learner) teachers, who works at Cider Mill and Middlebrook schools.

“I was a classroom teacher for 20 years,” she said, having worked in Bridgeport at a time when there was a large influx of students from Iran and Iraq, some of whom had absolutely no English.

While she did her best in attempting to impart the diverse content and strategies relating to different subject areas, she said it remained an ongoing question whether the students whose first language was not English were really hearing, learning and retaining any of what was being taught.

“They’re sitting in their seats and they knew nothing,” Moran said. “They had no English… I always felt bad when I couldn’t reach them.”

Her sensitivity to their plight not only compelled her to get an ELL certification, but buoys her passion for helping meet the unique needs of a student population that Wilton — as well as other towns in the “Group A” District Reference Group (DRG) — has seen slowly increasing in recent years.

“The number of students identified as ELL has increased in Weston as compared to previous years,” explained Kenneth Craw, Weston’s superintendent of schools, “enough so that we formally added part-time staffing during our last budget cycle to enhance the level of services provided.”

“The predominant first language for students is Spanish,” he said, though throughout the DRG — which includes Darien, Easton, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport and Wilton — a multitude of languages are sometimes presented.

In Westport, for instance, where Spanish is also the predominant language for ELL services, 23 different languages are spoken by the 74 students who have qualified to receive ELL services.

“A variety of efforts are used to make our curriculum accessible to ELL students and their parents,” Superintendent of Schools David Abbey said, including computer translations and, when necessary, the engagement of outside translators.

“In a number of situations only one student speaks a particular language,” he said, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they require ELL services, for their English skills may be strong.

This is where the assessment process comes in, including direct observation and the state standardized test called the LAS Links Assessment, which is a product of the Data Recognition Corporation and helps flag ELL students.

In fact, the identification process has become less stringent, so more students are qualifying for ELL services, sometimes just because English is not the primary language spoken in their home or not their first language learned.

“A variety of efforts are used to make our curriculum accessible to ELL students and their parents,” Abbey said. “These include computer translation of novels and arranging for translators during parent-teacher conferences.”

Albanian, Afrikaans, Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin, Nepali, Polish, Russian, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Ukranian and Vietnamese are among the languages that crop up in lower Fairfield County. It’s a varied and seemingly wide selection, though perhaps not when you consider there are close to 7,000 distinctly different languages throughout the world, according to the Linguistic Society of America.

“We’ve typically had corporate expats move into town, and in recent years we have increased the number of families choosing to move to New Canaan on their own,” said New Canaan Superintendent of Schools Bryan Luizzi.

“The numbers have trended up over time, and we also have a wider variety of languages,” he said, though again, not all of them require services.

“All of the students in New Canaan are enrolled and attend classes with their age appropriate peers,” he said, and depending on needs, ELL teachers help with everything from conferencing with parents, preparing testing material for students, and creating instructional content appropriate for that student’s learning.

“If we are able to find a teacher or community member that speaks the same language as our families, we use them to provide interpretive services,” Luizzi said. “We have allocated monies in our budget to hire a translation service as needed in case we are unable to locate someone who speaks a specific language.”

“As of Jan. 27, we have 33 students identified as ELL,” Charles Smith, Wilton’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said. Spanish is the most prevalent language.

“The current staffing level of two ELL teachers is sufficient to meet the needs of students and comply with CSDE (Connecticut State Department of Education) requirements for ELL services,” he said, with duties including assessments, work on grants, modifications for students and even family support.

“We want to provide them with an equitable education,” said Ellen Murphy’s Wilton’s other ELL teacher, who juggles time between the high school and Miller-Driscoll.

During her 15 years she has experienced a number of success stories, as evidenced by the ongoing relationships she has developed with some students and their families, who invite her to graduation ceremonies, bring her special homemade food dishes, and otherwise acknowledge her role in their lives.

“I really enjoy the role of welcoming a family to our town and trying to the best of my ability to help them feel like a part of the community,” said Murphy, a parent and longtime resident herself.

Thus, she sees her role as combining social work and guidance counseling skills, as well as those of an English teacher.

“I have just loved doing this since I started…,” Murphy said. “Feeling like a conduit between the families and the town is very rewarding.”

“I get really invested in my kids,” Moran concurred. “I get really passionate about it (and) a lot of times we are the strongest advocates for them.”

These days, as strange times have closed school buildings and forced teachers to rethink their methods of delivering instruction, both Murphy and Moran continue to play their key roles in reaching students in Wilton, though from a distance.

“We’re doing the distance learning just like everyone else is doing,” said Moran, who emails lessons through one online program but also engages directly with students through Zoom.

“Yesterday, I dressed up like Princess Elsa,” said Murphy, who has been drawing on her theatrical skills to create daily videos aimed to inspire her students.

“I just try to use a video to hook them in,” she said, noting that through pantomime and theatrics, she’s inspiring their attention and learning, even if English isn’t their native language.