Being the new kid in school is hard.
It’s even more daunting when language barriers keep you from making connections.
Leonor Fuhrer knows this firsthand since she was the only Spanish-speaking student at a school in Norfolk over 25 years ago.
“I remember the first week of school, I cried the whole time,” she said. “New place, new environment; no one that looks like me, let alone speaks like me.”
Fuhrer is now the coordinator of the Norfolk Family Coalition, an organization that provides immigrant families with resources and support as part of its mission.
It’s one of the community partnerships Norfolk Public Schools (NPS) has formed in its efforts to help non-native English-speaking students within the district.
This group of students has declined in numbers but grown increasingly diverse in recent years, administrators said, requiring English Language Learner programming to be shaped around widely varying student needs — as well as drawing on community support to fill in gaps.
Mary Luhr, the district’s director of student services, said ELL programming became necessary in Norfolk schools when non-native English-speaking families started moving here. The program has been in the district for more than 20 years.
The primary need within ELL programs is for Spanish speakers. That’s because Latino populations make up the largest portion of nonwhite residents at 2,939 in 2015, or 12 percent of the city’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
There are about 200 students in ELL classes this year, Luhr said, about 4.5 percent of the total district student body population of 4,446.
This number has decreased from up to 7 percent from five years ago, which is when Luhr first started in her current role. During that time, she also has seen the needs of ELL students change: the ages of students are skewing older, with more junior and senior high students joining ELL programs.
This year, four of the six elementary schools have ELL staff members, as well as the middle school, junior high and senior high.
All students are screened for ELL program eligibility upon entering the district through the English Language Proficiency Assessment, she said. Students in ELL classes take the assessment every year to determine whether they should stay in the program.
Once students are in ELL classes, they are monitored through a program called “Push in, pull out,” which provides a framework for educators to balance students’ time in ELL classes versus others.
“Push in” involves immersion in the larger student body (with support provided as needed), whereas “pull out” is direct English instruction.
Each student will have different needs based on his or her own experiences, Luhr said, with varying experience in English, school and use of technology. Often, they adjust quickly — especially elementary students.
“The students are amazing, how they adapt to all the changes they have when they come,” she said.
Support is key
The native languages of students enrolled in district ELL classes include Spanish, Burmese, Karen (a language spoken by the Karen people, who live primarily in Myanmar and Thailand) and Chinese with varying dialects.
This year, Westside Elementary is teaching about 20 students in its ELL program, a number that has decreased from 44 students within the past six years, said Angela Baumann, the school’s principal. The school has one Spanish and one Burmese interpreter, which she said accommodates all the students’ needs at Westside.
Baumann said the classes focus on reading, writing, listening and speaking, and they vary based on student needs.
Since there are so many individual circumstances for students in ELL classes, it can be a challenge to meet all needs perfectly, Fuhrer said. With an increasingly diverse student body, accommodating all languages and dialects can be difficult.
This can cause problems for students and families because they can’t communicate unmet needs. For example, Norfolk Family Coalition worked with a family that spoke a different dialect of Spanish.
“The kids were having a tough time because of the language barrier ... there wasn’t a translator and they were falling behind in school,” she said.
The coalition used the slight overlap in Spanish vocabulary the different dialects shared to communicate with the family, and it was able to provide the family with coaching and provide needed support to get established in the community.
When students don’t have access to interpreters, the school will reach out to community connections. Westside has needed Somali interpreters in the past, so administrators used Somali liaisons and interpreters in the community.
Community support is an integral part of the ELL program, Luhr said, especially when all languages and dialects can’t be covered with staff interpreters. Other tools like Google Translate are also used.
Fuhrer said referrals from the schools are some of the most common ways the Norfolk Family Coalition can provide additional support. It’s a partnership Fuhrer said she welcomes.
“They’re constantly calling us, asking for help,” she said. “We’re glad to have those referrals from the school, it’s pretty awesome.”
Over the years, district administrators have built a network of liaisons and interpreters they can use for students in schools where they don’t have interpreters on staff.
More informal assistance from bilingual students or paraprofessionals within the school are also an important factor in helping ELL students, Luhr said.
“Our student population is amazing; if (students) are bilingual, they will assist their peers,” she said.
School administrators also work to develop rapport with new families, Baumann said, because open communication helps both students and families.
“One of our goals is to keep communication open so families know what’s going on with children and feel comfortable coming to the school or contacting translators,” she said.
This includes helping parents find needed resources, as well as hosting special events for immigrant families and providing take-home activities like bilingual books.
Baumann said these connections are important because supporting families will in turn help the students.
“That’s not a direct part of the ELL program, but we’re helping families to be successful in the community,” she said.