School Committee Learns Strengths of English Language Program

More than one in every 10 students in the Bedford Public Schools is categorized as a current or former English language learner (ELL).

And according to Carrie Powers, program administrator for Bedford’s ELL program, they are in great hands as they strive for literacy. “The staff,” she said, “gives a great deal of thought to each child.”

Powers reported to the School Committee Tuesday with details of several recent highlights T. “I can’t say enough about the ELL program and all of your work with families, with students, and with teachers,” Assistant School Superintendent Tricia Clifford told Powers by way of introduction.

There are about 100 Bedford students who receive direct services, mostly at Davis and Lane Schools, and another 170 who are monitored for four years as “former ELLs,” Powers told the School Committee. There are eight full-time ESL teachers, and the student-faculty ratio is more favorable than in most districts in the state, she said. Powers also does some teaching.

Bedford students speak more than 50 foreign languages, Powers said, with the most common being Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, and Russian.

In an interview later this week, Powers explained that new families are surveyed about home languages, and if appropriate those children are screened for English-as-a-second-language services.

ESL teachers work with groups of English learners both in the classroom setting and in separate sessions, Powers said. “Teachers wear many hats. They have to teach at so many levels.”

Under state requirements, children on the lower end of the screening scale receive at least 450 minutes of support per week; those on the higher side get at least 225 minutes of ESL instruction, she said. Powers stressed that in Bedford those minimums are greatly exceeded.

An annual proficiency test, known by its acronym of ACCESS, measures academic and social English literacy. “In Bedford, we are always above the state average on our ACCESS scores,” Powers told the committee. Last year the passing rate was 74 percent, compared to a state average of 29, she said, noting, “Our data from Covid were really good. The lessons I saw the teachers do on Zoom were amazing.”

“We are constantly monitoring students, meeting with parents, and reviewing student success plans,” Powers related. “We are writing student support plans for students who did not make progress on ACCESS from last year to this year. There’s a lot behind the scenes that goes into the job.”

Powers pointed out in the interview that “it takes seven to 10 years to learn a language. We can have students in the program from kindergarten to high school. But it depends – students who have a strong literacy background will make the transfer into English much easier,” as opposed to students with limited formal education who never learned to read in their native language.

“The teachers are amazing here, and they are providing excellent instruction for these students. But it still takes time for a student to learn English.”

Bedford’s English learners come from a wide range of backgrounds, Power said. They are the children not just of highly-educated technology professionals but also families disrupted by war, “political circumstances,” relocation from earthquake. “Different things brought people to Bedford,” she said.

In answer to a question from School Committee member Dan Brosgol, Powers said because of the Covid-19 pandemic, “there weren’t as many international movements.” Now people are returning to the technology workforce, she added.

Powers and two teachers outlined some of the highlights of the past year:

  • An annual awards night. Last May’s event, attended by some 300 people, celebrated multilingualism, Powers said, with students giving testimonials on how multilingualism affects their lives. “It was a wonderful, warm, welcoming night,” remarked Laure Villarroel, ELL teacher at Lane School. “So many parents thanked us.”
  • An “intense but fun” four-week morning summer program, attended by 46 students at Lane, Powers continued. The program was especially helpful to children without siblings “practice English skills and socialize with other children,” said Lane School ELL teacher Amy O’Shea.
  • An English language learner parent advisory council, established in 2019. Last year there were two meetings on Zoom: an overview in the fall and a focus on the impact of screen time in the spring. “We try to get our EL parents to feel a connection, to feel included and be more involved in the school,” Powers said. Another meeting is planned for this month.
  • A professional development session called “Separating Difference from Disability,” attended by Bedford teachers, administrators, and school psychologists.
  • An adult program teaching English as a second language. Since 2018, Powers said, We have provided ESL to over 160 adults,” including students’ parents, grandparents, and neighbors. “There were 14 community volunteers. Two of our students the first year got their citizenship,” Powers said. “When you educate the parents and grandparents, you educate the children. It’s a systems approach.”

However, Powers told the committee, the $18,000 in federal grant money that financed this adult education experience is not available this year. “I get emails and calls asking when is it starting. I’m looking for funding. Unfortunately, it’s not valued as much as it should be.” Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad said, “I have some meetings set up with some people who might be able to help.”

In answer to a question, Powers stressed that an adult class should be free. The community is committed to educating children in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, she observed, and “I don’t see why we don’t provide adults to learn to write their name or their address.”

She also noted that in the schools, the emphasis is on bilingualism, not English-only. Families are urged to speak their native languages and learn English as a second language, she said.

Powers said she appreciates the School Committee’s support. “Other districts don’t operate this way.  You truly value ESL.”


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