Courtesy of Kristen Mendoza

New Haven’s shift to remote education for the start of this year’s fall semester has created disruptions for English language learners, which city teachers, parents and nonprofit leaders have stepped up to alleviate.

In March, New Haven Public Schools closed until the end of the 2019-20 school year. Since the start of the 2020-21 school year on Sept. 3, schools have remained closed, though the city is looking to reopen schools in person using a hybrid learning model on Nov. 9. During this time, ELL students have had to learn how to use unfamiliar technology, find food and other aid from nonprofit organizations and adapt to virtual learning environments. Community members have mobilized resources and changed teaching strategies to adjust to new COVID-19 policies.

“The instructional piece is hard. We have days where we have a lot of fun and we have days where I feel like I am teaching into the void,” said Wilbur Cross High School ELL teacher Kristin Mendoza in an interview with the News. “It’s hard to draw out participation, it’s hard to get teenagers to turn on their cameras.”

Mendoza said that teaching her ELL students virtually has challenged her and her students. She hopes that the city’s hybrid reopening plan will operate smoothly so that she can return to in-person instruction in a safe manner.

At the beginning of the year, the city of New Haven took steps to ensure that every student had access to an internet-connected device.

Mendoza said that it took a few weeks for students at Wilbur Cross to receive their assigned devices because many students and their parents had changed phone numbers and addresses recently. She said that many of her ELL students have faced issues with access to computer devices that are similar to the problems low-income residents have confronted. 

Unique to many ELL students, she noted, is the struggle to learn computer and web applications such as Google Documents due to the language barrier. At one point in the semester, a Spanish-language-predominant student accidentally changed their computer’s language to Chinese, could not change it back and had to send it back to Wilbur Cross for a reset. Mendoza said this left the student without access to an internet device until it could be reset.

Online education has also had its upsides for Mendoza’s ELL students. Mendoza, who won NHPS teacher of the year this year, told the News that her students have used the opportunity to learn how to work in groups virtually and how to utilize web applications, a skillset Mendoza described as critical. Additionally, Wilbur Cross’ International Academy has worked with teachers to develop best practices for online teaching.

Despite the newfound virtues of online education, Mendoza said that the loss in human connection has limited the quality of education she can provide her students. She has found that some of her students are hesitant to turn on their cameras while at home, creating an environment she described as a less conducive one for creating bonds with her students. With this in mind, Mendoza said she hopes the district will move along its reopening plan in the near future.

Daniel Diaz, coordinator of parent engagement for New Haven Public Schools, told the News in a phone interview about his efforts to communicate the district’s plans to parents in both English and Spanish via the software Blackboard.

“When COVID-19 closed the schools in March, we gave the parents information in both English and Spanish [letting them know] the schools were closed,” Diaz said. “We shifted to supporting families in many ways.”

Diaz said that he has been communicating with parents “on a daily basis” in English, Spanish and other languages. He has focused on connecting the parents of the approximately 4,000 ELL-designated students with services through organizations like JUNTA, Christian Community Action and ARTE, Inc. He told the News that the combined district and nonprofit efforts have, in particular, sought to ensure that families have adequate access to food items.

Diaz told the News that the district’s efforts to help its ELL students often spread into broader efforts to support the city’ ever-growing immigrant community. These efforts have continued during the pandemic. Together with the BOE’s Office of Youth, Family and Community Engagement, the district has worked to help unaccompanied youth prior to and especially during the pandemic, providing them and other families in need with coats and emergency food supplies. He added that he has worked to connect many undocumented New Haveners with organizations and resources to help them cover rent.

He described how Guilford High School senior Gabriela Garcia-Perez — founder and captain of the Community Integration Mentoring Program — created an initiative called “kids helping kids” to bridge language barriers between New Haven ELL middle school students and students from neighboring communities. Garcia-Perez’s organization also organized multiple food drives in April and May. Part of the collection of food items and school supplies went to the Semilla Collective, a local nonprofit whose work targets the city’s immigrant community. The district has also served hot breakfast and lunch at over 41 public schools in an attempt to alleviate the burden on parents during the pandemic.

“What happened with COVID was that it unveiled the real needs in our community,” Diaz said. “New Haven is a very unique family. We are a family. We all do help each other and the immigrant community are people who are fighters.”

Bahati Kanyamanza, manager of youth programs and education advocacy at Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, or IRIS, told the News that he has heard and worked to address concerns from various refugee families about their children’s ability to adapt to online education.

“For kids who have come to the U.S. and don’t know English … remote learning is not working for them,” Kanyamanza said. “One big challenge is technology. Parents and kids don’t know the technology and English becomes a barrier.”

As a Congolese-born refugee who learned English after resettling in the United States, Kanyamanza told the News that he has come to see how in-person learning is more efficient for second language acquisition and comprehension. After hearing that students from some refugee families were struggling to log onto class on a consistent basis at the start of the school year, Kanyamanza reached out to parents to familiarize them with remote learning applications such as Zoom and Google Classroom. After coordinating via phone yielded unsatisfactory results, he safely visited homes to help students navigate their schedules and transition between Zoom calls.

Kanyamanza said that the families he has worked with have faced other obstacles, such as a lack of physical space and an increase in family conflicts. As a result of schools closing, parents and their kids have had to share the same spaces for a prolonged period of time during the pandemic. He says that kids often struggle to consistently attend their classes, which results in disciplinary action from the parents.

As the pandemic persists, he said that IRIS will continue to help translate school and other documents for clients, connect struggling students with teachers and tutors and help address student attendance and technology.

“If it’s an issue IRIS can fix, we fix it,” Kanyamanza said.

Wilbur Cross High School is located at 181 Mitchell Dr.

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu

Larissa Jimenez | larissa.jimenez@yale.edu