In David Weinreb’s fifth grade classroom, students read books in English and Spanish by Latinx authors, make videos about immigration issues and learn about the impact of Hurricane Maria.
Weinreb is a teacher at Fair Haven School, which has one of the highest populations of English-Language Learner students in New Haven. As the immigrant population in the city continues to rise, the district is trying to meet the growing need for classrooms like Weinreb’s across Elm City.
In tandem with the rising refugee and immigrant population in New Haven, New Haven Public Schools are continuing to see an increase in English-Language Learners across the city. In the Connecticut General Assembly’s upcoming legislative session, representatives and advocates from New Haven are hoping to increase state funding for bilingual education programs in the district.
“New Haven continues to grow as a welcoming, vibrant, diverse city. We are known for being a city that welcomes all regardless of immigration status, and we have historically been at the forefront of the immigration advocacy movement,” New Haven Board of Education member Joseph Rodriguez told the News. “I think we will continue to see more and more individuals moving to New Haven and across the region in the hopes of a better education and a better life.”
Eighteen percent of students in the New Haven Public Schools system identify as English-Language Learners, according to Ward 14 Alder Kenneth Reveiz. Among the 46 percent of students who identify as Latinx in New Haven Public Schools, 11 percent of this population are English-Language Learners, Rodriguez said. Additionally, 24 schools in the district have 20 or more students speaking the same non-English language, qualifying them as bilingual schools. In total, the district serves about 3,500 English Language-Learners.
According to the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, one in eight New Haven residents are foreign-born, coming from 120 countries.
In a December press conference, Mayor Toni Harp said that the percentage of students who are English-Language Learners has increased by 25 percent since she took office in 2013, according to the New Haven Register. She added that the city is committed to looking for more resources for these programs.
In November, the New Haven Board of Alders Education Committee held a public hearing to field presentations and public concern about the future of bilingual programs. Administrators and community members submitted recommendations for changes in the district’s programs, and former Program Director Abie Benitez said that the district does not have the resources to support the growing ELL population in the schools.
The English-Language Learner Department, which was created when School Superintendent Carol Birks restructured the central office in 2018, has recommended that the district increase its number of dual-language programs — which consistently provide teaching in two languages — instead of furthering transitional bilingual education programs that focus on transitioning students to English-only classrooms after 60 months.
In a July 2018 report for nonprofit Connecticut Voices for Children, Camara Stokes Hudson and Lauren Ruth said that Latinx students, specifically those classified as English-Language Learners, have significantly lower graduation rates and standardized test scores than their white counterparts.
In the report, Hudson and Ruth recommended increasing the number of Latinx teachers in the bilingual schools — citing research which says that students are more successful with teachers who look like them, largely because Latinx teachers will have higher expectations than white teachers.
Currently, the Connecticut Department of Education suggests that districts have one bilingual teacher for every 50 English-Language Learner students, a standard which bilingual program supervisor Carmen Rodriguez said at the Education Committee meeting that New Haven has yet to meet.
Others added that the shortage of bilingual teachers in public schools is not only a problem locally but nationally.
Weinreb told the News that problems with hiring enough bilingual teachers are occurring across the United States, not only in New Haven. He added that there are pathways being provided for increasing teachers. Beginning next year, nonprofit Teach for America will be sending bilingual teachers to Connecticut, and district contractor Area Cooperative Educational Services is beginning to provide a bilingual certification program for current teachers called ARCTEL.
Legislators are also trying to remedy this problem in the state capital.
Reveiz told the News that he is working with Rep. Juan Candelaria D-New Haven on legislation that was co-sponsored by Rep. Josh Elliott D-Hamden.
The first bill is an act which appropriates $7 million from the General Fund to the State Department of Education specifically for bilingual education. Candelaria’s second proposed bill requires school districts to set guidelines which will require them to increase minority teacher hires by two percent annually in the hopes that seeing teachers who look like them will increase student investment.
However, Rodriguez told the News that staff shortages go beyond the classroom. Because of this year’s district-wide budget cuts, several schools had to let go of bilingual office workers and counselors. New Haven Public Schools are currently facing an $8.9 million deficit.
The Connecticut Voices for Children report also recommends that families receive support from schools in order to increase student success.
“When schools engage with parents, it can help teachers and administrators understand the specific external pressures Latino families face and the educational needs of each student,” the report said.
Rodriguez noted that because English-Language Learner programs are coming from all areas of the world and speak over 74 languages, it would be necessary for the district to “get creative.”
He said that the Board of Education would continue to partner with immigration nonprofits in order to provide translators and outside resources to students. These nonprofits include local refugee resettlement agency, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services and Junta for Progressive Action — which promotes Latinx rights in the Elm City.
Although Reveiz acknowledged that English-Language Learner programs need to be further developed, he also said he was excited to see people committed to supporting ELL students.
“I’m really glad that this issue is getting the attention it deserves and that we can send a clear message to young people that we see them and are proud to invest in them,” said Reveiz.
Ward 1 Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19, who serves on the city’s Education Committee, said that while most of the work of the committee is to “start the conversation” about education issues, he believes it is important to continue funding education programs in New Haven.
“I took English as a second language when I was in elementary school and can attest to how difficult it can be to assimilate into American culture when one does not know how to speak the language,” he told the News.
The Connecticut General Assembly 2019 Regular Session convened on Jan. 9.
Carolyn Sacco | firstname.lastname@example.org