From learning a new language to acclimating to a new culture, English learners face many challenges and work through them thanks to educators and public schools. To learn how school leaders ensure that teachers of ELs feel supported and newcomer families feel connected to the school community, Principal Leadership contacted David Arencibia, the principal of Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, TX, and the 2022 Texas Principal of the Year; LeAnne McCall, the principal of Lowndes High School in Valdosta, GA, and the 2022 Georgia Principal of the Year; and Stella Nwanguma, the principal of Winslow Township Middle School in Atco, NJ, and the 2022 New Jersey Principal of the Year.

Principal Leadership: Tell me about the population of ELs in your school. What languages do they speak and what countries do they come from?

Arencibia: We actually have a very small percentage of ELs at our school, with 18 different languages spoken at home. The primary one is Spanish followed by Arabic. Everything else is a tie for third. This includes Korean, Urdu, and Vietnamese. However, I’ve worked at other schools where we’ve had about 80% of ELs on campus.

McCall: Our EL population at Lowndes High School comprises approximately 2% of our student body; however, our neighboring school systems have a higher percentage of ELs, which tends to be somewhat transient. Spanish is the primary language spoken by ELs at Lowndes. But just like David said, we also periodically welcome students who speak other languages such as Arabic, Urdu, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Nwanguma: We have a small English language learner population of about six students, with the primary language being Spanish. But we just recently received two students who are twin sisters from Afghanistan, and they speak Pashto. We are working with them very closely. Also, the Spanish-speaking students are from Honduras and Puerto Rico.

Principal Leadership: For each of your schools, what supports do you offer in terms of the number of teachers and classes?

Nwanguma: We have an English language learner program where the students attend a class with a trained, certified English language learner teacher who works with them daily. The students are scheduled with her each day. When we look at their schedule, we also include other supports based on their time in this country and their needs after testing. For instance, we have an English program specifically for ELs, because you just can’t put them into your general education language classes right away. Sometimes they might need different supports. We have a System 44 program, an online program that introduces them to the English language with fluency, and comprehension, and phonics. We also have Read 180, another online program, which also translates for them. We have a unique situation for our students who are just coming from Afghanistan. We happen to be very lucky and have a teacher’s assistant who is from their town in Afghanistan and speaks the same dialect, so she works closely with them. Schools can get support with Spanish very easily, but Pashto is just a whole different level when you’re trying to translate.

McCall: We use a very similar model for students to receive support in their English language arts courses and to learn the language. These classes are taught by a certified EL teacher during a 90-minute block of time daily using a scheduled language acquisition delivery model and a sheltered language instruction delivery model. In these classes, we often have a 1:10 student-to-teacher ratio, which allows the teacher to provide individualized instruction based on the students’ individual English language proficiency levels. These students are also provided supplemental language supports such as Lexia Power UP or Imagine Language and Literacy through Title III. We also have a push-in model in which the certified EL teacher will go into a content-​specific classroom to provide support in a co-taught environment. In these classes, the content-certified teacher has also obtained an EL certification or endorsement to help ELs be successful. In addition, we have an innovative model that we use with students who are poised to exit ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes. In this model, a content teacher who is also ESOL certified provides scaffolds and supports in content area classes.

Arencibia: We have a similar approach, but we don’t pull the students out; we do inclusion in our general education classes. We incorporate the language support into the core content classes. We pair each EL with a buddy who also speaks their language. We also have an EL class specifically for language arts that has a very small student-teacher ratio. We use the other programs such as Read 180, like Stella mentioned. And we use Ellevation, a data management program that pinpoints ELs’ academic needs.

McCall: What we have also found is that our ELs flourish when we place them in an elective class of their choosing. Our school offers 47 elective pathways such as art, culinary, interior design, or automotive. Allowing ELs to pursue an interest or passion gives them an opportunity to explore their gifts and talents. As with many students, elective courses are often a welcomed break in the day for our ELs from the rigors of academic courses. If an EL needs additional support in an elective course, we provide paraprofessional educators to assist the elective teacher and work with the student as needed.

Principal Leadership: How does supporting teachers of ELs impact your role as a school leader?

Nwanguma: It starts with scheduling. When you’re creating a schedule, you have to give teachers an opportunity to meet and converse regarding the needs of the students that they have in common. So, we’ve provided an opportunity within the schedule for those teachers to meet and discuss those students. We also have our English language learner teacher on a flex schedule in the morning where she can push into classes or pull out. That means she has the flexibility to work with her colleagues in terms of supporting ELs. I also give teachers the opportunity to meet with me and let me know what they need. We have told them, “We have funds to support you, what do you need?” As far as equipment in the classroom, translators, smartboards, whatever they need that is being offered to them.

Arencibia: We really differentiate for our teachers in what we offer for professional development (PD). We’re very keen on not doing a one-size-fits-all for anyone because we truly believe our teachers have different needs. Of course, we’ll have our schoolwide PD, which we’ll participate in together. But when we’re talking about EL teachers, they need very specific training on some of the programs we talked about, the Read 180, etc. So, we really give them that hyper-focused attention.

McCall: Certainly, looking at student scheduling is very important. We have an ESOL coordinator for the district who works closely with us in developing the course sequence for our ELs. She worked here at Lowndes previously, so she knows our teachers, which is a tremendous benefit. In addition, we value the students’ primary home language, and we encourage our English learners to embrace their primary language as well as to pursue English language proficiency. For professional development, teachers of ELs have access to a Google Classroom with a plethora of resources and strategies. We also belong to a regional consortium that provides bimonthly job-alike opportunities for EL teachers from several school systems to meet and discuss current trends, issues, and best practices. In addition, the ESOL coordinator provides monthly briefings for all teachers of ELs and administrators. In addition to professional learning opportunities, one of the most important supports leaders can give to an EL teacher is encouragement. They need to know that we support their work and encourage them to try new and creative practices.

Principal Leadership: What are some ways that you connect with families of ELs?

McCall: Our district sends out communications in English and in Spanish. Additionally, our ESOL teacher has made home visits to families of ELs to discuss a student’s learning needs. If parents are only available during the school day because they may work in the evenings, we provide flex time for the ESOL teacher to visit the parent during the school day to make that personal contact. Title III parent outreach meetings are held at the school level so that the ESOL teacher can build relationships and share information about supplemental supports. A systemwide Title III parent outreach session was held this year at the public library to provide parents with information to help them help their children be academically successful. Over 20 guests from the community were present to talk about college, health care, literacy, available jobs, and much more. We host information sessions at school specifically for our EL families districtwide to learn about the parent portal for information on grades and attendance, the school lunch program, etc. Classes are also provided for parents interested in learning English.

Nwanguma: As LeAnne said, we also have districtwide events offered to all our English learner families. These are opportunities for them to come in and be guided through some of the pertinent information that they need access to, things like signing up for the school lunch program, completing those applications that may be a challenge for some families, guiding them through sports applications so that students can have a physical and participate. We also guide them through the expectations of the district—for example, they may not be aware of the dress code—and we provide that opportunity for questions. We always have a translator at these events, and we offer dinner. For ELs and their families, we do an orientation that’s more specific to them. We walk them around our building. They get to see their children’s classrooms. Sometimes you’ll have the whole family walk through the child’s schedule so they can visualize where they are in gym and in the lunchroom. I think that brings a sense of calm to the families to just have a mental picture of what their child is seeing throughout a given day.

Arencibia: Our district runs something called “Exito Hispano,” which one of our school board members helps host. It’s an evening event where we basically give ELs and their families additional information when it comes to signing up for college scholarships and how to navigate our grade tracking system online. The event is held in Spanish, and we provide childcare and dinner. At my school, I’m the only Spanish speaker besides our Spanish teacher. When ELs enroll who are new to our school, I’ll go around campus with them, and I’ll speak to them in Spanish the entire time, which definitely alleviates any anxiety for them. I’m fortunate to be bilingual and to connect with them in that regard.

Principal Leadership: Can you share any of your proudest moments in working with this student population?

Nwanguma: In America, you see different populations of families come depending on what’s happening in the world. If you have an earthquake in Haiti, you’ll see an influx of students from Haiti. I do remember maybe two earthquakes ago in Haiti, a young lady enrolled here as a result. She spoke zero English. We did offer French at the time, so we had the ability to place her in homeroom with the French teacher, so her day started with someone who spoke her language. She was so fluent in English by the time she left our school (with grades 7 and 8, we’re only a two-year school) that she tested out of the English language learner program by the time she was ready to attend high school. For me, when they test out of the program, that’s a success story. I attribute her success to the fact that she was extremely active in our school. With sports and clubs, she was speaking English very quickly, and she was teaching us a little French, too.

McCall: Without question one of my favorite memories was attending a scholarship recognition for one of our graduating ELs. She received the Sullivan Scholarship from Valdosta State University, which includes all tuition, housing, and learning supplies (books and a computer). Sullivan Scholarship winners are selected based on a set of criteria that includes a commitment to pursue a degree in education. The EL teacher and others at our school were thrilled to know that one of our students was pursuing her passion as a future educator. It was so affirming that the work we do really does make a difference.

Arencibia: One of the success stories I’m thinking of is just how one particular student has felt welcomed and embraced. This student and his family had spent about a month and a half walking through Mexico to get to Texas as refugees. They experienced life-threatening situations during their journey. When they first visited our school, I spoke Spanish to them. Seeing their anxiety just completely lift was wonderful. The other day I was able to meet with this student and our EL teacher, and he shared that he loves having staff members, including myself, who care about him and ask “what do you need?” The social-emotional and wellness piece of the child—that’s the celebration.

Principal Leadership: In your time as educators, has there been a marked change in how schools support ELs?

McCall: This is my 26th year in education. One of the things that has evolved during my tenure is that we have become much more in tune with the whole child concept for all students, which is also of great significance for our ELs as well. We are working not just to meet a student’s academic needs but also their physical, safety, social, and emotional needs. In doing so, we work closely with the entire family.

Routinely, our EL teachers, coordinators, and student support service providers are assisting families with academic and tutoring support, medical care, mental health care, housing assistance, and food insecurity. It is important that we help those families identify resources in our community and build relationships. Because of this, the graduation rate for the EL subgroup at Lowndes has increased exponentially over the years. Last year, 95% of our ELs graduated from our school.

Arencibia: The most significant change in my 22 years has been really listening to our teachers. They would tell us that pulling our students out of that primary core instruction was not the best thing. So now, besides having a designated class where ELs are working on language skills, they also remain in those core classes for academic purposes along with their buddy, who helps support them with the translation.

Nwanguma: Something that I’ve seen increase in the 14 years I’ve been here is the amount of allocated funding for ELs. We’re able to provide parent support programs, as well as increase the amount of technology in those classrooms. The classrooms for supporting ELs are starting to reflect what the rest of the school looks like. I think at the beginning of my career—and that’s not in this district—it was an afterthought, and now funding is being directed toward English language learner programs so that students are getting what they need to be successful.

Another thing they need to succeed is to be in the least-restrictive environment. We need to make sure they’re immersed in the school. Access is important for them. If we want them to have the same opportunities as everyone else, that does mean putting a little extra effort in to make sure they understand what those opportunities are.