Committee Hears of Language Program’s Success

April 17, 2024
64 English language learners were Davis School students this school year, nearly half of the program enrollment. Courtesy Image.

An exponential increase in the number of students not only challenged the Bedford schools’ English language learning department, it also engendered effective and creative responses built on a strong foundation.

Carrie Powers, program administrator for the schools’ English language learning, shared details of the effort with the Bedford School Committee at its regular meeting last Tuesday.

Much of the focus was on the arrival of more than 80 migrant families who were assigned by state government to the Bedford Plaza Hotel as an emergency shelter. Some 50 children, most of them from Haiti and Venezuela, enrolled in the town’s four schools.

“The first two months of school, we registered 64 level-one students, which is unbelievable. In years past, we might register five or 10,” Powers said, referring to children with no knowledge of English. “This impact was unexpected because we didn’t know until August. 

“The silver lining is: we were prepared. We had programs in place already and we had space to accommodate the needs.”

Almost all of the district’s 12 English language teachers attended the meeting, and Powers shined her spotlight on them. 

“This team is the reason why our English language learners are doing so well,” said Powers. 

Powers said the department’s professional goal encompasses not only “educating students, teachers, and administrators” but also “to advocate on behalf of our students and their families.”

“We have had phenomenal results,” she said.

The overall roster totals 140 students, almost half of them (64) at Davis School, 41 at Lane School, and the remainder in grades 6-12. The student-teacher ratio is 1 to 14, which is one reason why “we are able to meet the needs of English learners,” Powers said.

Davis School features a dual language program in kindergarten and first grade and a newcomer program for second graders, Powers said. Patricia White, an English language learner’s teacher at Davis, described small-group instruction concentrating on oral language, vocabulary, and basic literacy skills. She added that the next level supports students in other academic subjects.

Teachers also described specific approaches to language instruction, such as musical theater at Lane School and autobiographies at the middle school. She added that social-emotional needs and “how to support them in and out of the classroom” are discussed with administrators.

Some of the students fall under a category with the acronym SLIFE: Students with Limited and/or Interrupted Formal Education. Powers said that over the past six years the language program has included an average of two SLIFE students yearly; this year the number is 34. 

At Lane, John Genn Middle, and Bedford High schools, there were existing SLIFE programs, Powers pointed out.

Every year the students take an access test to measure proficiency, Powers told the committee, and in 2023 in Bedford 73 percent met the progress goal, compared to a state average of 30 percent. “We have the staff to actually make this possible,” she explained. “We move kids quickly in this district to ‘former’ English learners.”

Powers also reported on English language classes for adults, taking place at the shelter and at the high school, at various skill levels as well as a “citizenship preparation” course. She noted that enrollment of 60 during the fall term at the hotel dropped by half in the second semester, mainly because many of the original adult students had found jobs. 

The classes in English language for adults are underwritten by a three-year, $60,000 grant from the Cummings Foundation.

Also joining the report was Christine Smith, coordinator of volunteers for the adult classes. “I’m amazed at how many people rose to the occasion,” she said, noting that dozens of residents also helped with supplies and other donations.

School Committee members – including Angel Pettitt, who has served as a volunteer – expressed approval and gratitude. Brad Morrison said that through the language program, the students are learning to be “global citizens.” Sheila Mehta-Green and Sarah Scoville both cited the English language program’s strong framework.

Asked by member Sarah McGinley about the prospects that the state plans to close the shelter, School Superintendent Cliff Chuang said the priority is “to ensure continuity of education.” Smith said some family members told her that they are sad to be leaving. 

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