Molly Walsh, Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, July 24, 2007
A growing issue
The number of English language learners in the Burlington school district has increased over the last two years from about 430 to 515 as more refugees settle in the area. The number of ELL students could grow this school year if an estimated 100 additional refugees slated to come—many of them Burundian—arrive as expected.
To help meet the need, the 3,637-student district budgeted four additional ELL teaching and coaching slots, bringing the total to 14.1 ELL teachers and one coach. If a large number of Burundi students arrive in one group, the district might consider grouping them into a newcomers class as it did when a group of 80 Somali Bantu students arrived a few years ago. The district also might need to hire more ELL teachers. “We don’t know yet,” said Jeanne Collins, Burlington schools superintendent.
Foreign speakers in the district typically are placed in regular classrooms. They often are pulled out for small group instruction with an ELL teacher; and some schools, including Flynn Elementary, have a breakfast club and after-school homework club that many ELL students attend for extra help.
Many foreign-speaking children acquire conversational English relatively quickly. Within one school year they may be able to keep up with a lively conversation at the lunch table or on the playground. After two, they may be translating for parents at home who are having a much tougher time with the language.
This impressive progress sometimes conceals the underlying difficulty of gaining academic fluency in a foreign language—a deeper, more comprehensive knowledge that can take five to seven years to acquire. English language learners typically progress through four domains—listening, speaking, reading and writing. Mastering the last two skills—especially writing—are the toughest, O’Brien said.
“You cannot absorb, access content material, like math, science, social studies unless you’ve got the language to do it. If you can’t read, you can’t get it. If you can’t write, you can’t tell anybody about it,” she said. “What we’re trying to do the best we can is to do give them those skills.”
English language learners take an annual English proficiency test as well as the state-mandated standardized tests, The New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP). The English proficiency tests show Burlington’s immigrant and refugee students are making tremendous progress from year to year, Collins said, but they are often still not at grade level according to the NECAP results.
Particularly for students who were older when they enrolled, it can be very difficult to complete grade-level academic work, but looking at individual progress is often inspiring, Collins said. “They are actually in many cases making more than a year’s progress in a year’s time.”
In addition to language instruction, the Burlington summer school offered children a chance to learn more about American culture as well as the cultures of the various refugee and immigrant groups represented in the city school system. The more relaxed atmosphere allows children and teachers to talk about and resolve friction that arises over customs, dress, religion and race, O’Brien said.