Carolyn Sacco

New Haven is the fastest growing city in Connecticut due to its large immigrant population, and nowhere is that more visible than in its schools. At the New Haven Board of Alders Education Committee meeting on Thursday, meeting the needs of English Language Learners was at the top of the agenda.

At the meeting, English Language Learner Program Director Abie Benitez reported that the ELL population in K-12 schools makes up 18 percent of the student population. These programs — run by the school district — aim to provide language and academic support to students whose first language is not English. This population continues to increase and is made up of largely Spanish speakers, in addition to students whose first language is Arabic, Pashto or Mandarin, according to Benitez. At the committee meeting, representatives of the district spoke about the achievement gap in core academic subjects for these students, as well as the lack of bilingual programming and staff to support the ELL population.

“The state says that for every 50 ELLs we should have a teacher,” said Carmen Rodriguez, a supervisor of the English Language Learner Program. “We are not near that in New Haven, but this is something that will challenge all of us. If we are not equipping schools with the right staffing, we will have 18 percent of students who will not be meeting the standard they need.”

During her report, Benitez acknowledged that the school system does not have the resources to address the unprecedented increase in ELL students in New Haven public schools. Although ELL programs are shown to increase student success in core academic areas such as reading and math, students are still testing below the state standard.

Madeline Negron, the chief of teaching and learning in Hartford Public Schools and the president of education nonprofit Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, also highlighted the achievement gap between ELLs and their peers. In addition, she suggested that bilingual education programs at the preschool level could help improve test scores.

Benitez presented a district plan which included more dual language programs that provide instruction in both languages instead of focusing on transitional programs. Transitional programs end after the student achieves proficiency in English, but dual language programs offer ongoing instruction in two languages.

Benitez proposed adding more universal support training so that teachers who are not bilingual can provide support. She also mentioned defining better staff criteria so that schools can meet state standards.

At the meeting, parents and teachers similarly expressed frustration with the lack of bilingual program staff. Kristin Mendoza, who is a bilingual teacher at Wilbur Cross, told the committee that the school recently lost its bilingual guidance counselor and bilingual office clerk because of district layoffs. She emphasized the detrimental impact this has had on establishing connections with families in the school.

Many of the challenges that bilingual programs face are associated with larger scale budgetary issues in the district. The Board of Education is facing a $8.6 million budget deficit during the 2018–19 school year. Last spring, they made the controversial decision to lay off 28 staff members and close three schools — Creed High School, New Horizons High School and New Light High School. They also decided not to hire several six-figure salaried bilingual education supervisors after protests from the New Haven Federation of Teachers about the necessity of highly paid consultants instead of teachers.

Despite the budget issues, Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, proposed that the Board of Alders look to the state government for funding and make the case for more grants. He said that they would have to “make the case for more dollars” in order to meet the growing needs of the population.

Despite many people’s frustrations with ELL resources, Wilbur Cross High School Principal Edith Johnson emphasized the progress that bilingual programs have made at her school.

Johnson said that when she first became principal six years ago, there was only one bilingual staff member. She piloted the school’s International Academy program, which has a project-based curriculum to help ELL students transitioning into the United States education system. Today, it serves over 400 students.

Johnson also discussed the growing population of ELL students who do not speak Spanish. Wilbur Cross and Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services have partnered to provide translators to students who are recent immigrants from several Middle Eastern countries.

“We are not perfect, we are still struggling and we have students coming in every day,” she said. “One was from York, New Jersey, last week it was a student from a small town in Mexico and the week before that a student from Iran. I am meeting with new students almost every day. We have seen gains, but in order to maintain those gains we need to be funded properly.”

Several committee members expressed enthusiasm for improving bilingual education.

Ward 14 Alder Kenneth Reveiz was particularly surprised by the amount of community advocacy surrounding English language learners.

“I don’t remember the last committee meeting where we had that much participation,” he said. “To me, this feels like a major priority to our city. There are at least 32 policy recommendations that I have written down. I feel like we have a huge opportunity, and we can lead the way.”

Ultimately the committee voted to keep the issue open and hear opinions from Board of Education members about possibilities to improve ELL opportunities. Ward 8 Alder Education Committee Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 said that he wanted to hear more from the Board of Education members, none of whom were present at the meeting.

Teachers and parents also stressed the need for more culturally responsive and socially informed teaching which acknowledges the cultural histories of students from different backgrounds.

Sarah Miller ’03, a New Haven parent and member of New Haven Public School Advocates, said that she was frustrated with the glorification of Christopher Columbus at a Hispanic Heritage Month Event last week.

Fair Haven School bilingual teacher David Weinreb advocated for more trauma-informed training for teachers and social justice education for students. He pointed out the increasing number of undocumented students and refugees, many of whom have faced trauma in their lives. He showed videos of students talking about border detainees and Hurricane Maria in order to demonstrate the power of students “flexing their social justice muscles.”

“My students are brilliant, but they are also bruised,” Weinreb said. “I am asking the Board of Alders and the New Haven community to go well beyond academic investments but double down on the necessary socio-emotional supports that our students need to process their pathways and the hate that circulates.”

The Education Committee meets on the fourth Wednesday of every month.

Carolyn Sacco | carolyn.sacco@yale.edu