Step into Sarah Conrad's pre-kindergarten classroom at St.
Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington and you'll see the
usual objects: tiny furniture, storybooks, brightly colored
posters and educational toys. But you'll also notice that
laminated labels abound. The teacher's desk, the little
library, the math games and a host of other things throughout
the space are all identified in perfectly scripted English
and Lithuanian. Conrad made this effort for a 4-year-old girl
who entered her class not speaking a word of English.
"I'm constantly using Google Translate and mispronouncing
(Lithuanian) words in an attempt to communicate with her,"
said Conrad, pre-K director at St. Thomas More. "And it's
starting to work. She was very quiet at the start of the
school year, but she's beginning to speak English. She's even
asking questions. She might not always be sure about what
she's asking, but she's putting the words together. And her
classmates are excited for her. They say, 'Look, Miss Conrad,
she's speaking English. Does that mean she knows everything
now?' And I say, 'No, not yet. But she's getting better.'"
This girl is an unusual case of an English language learner
(formerly known as English as a Second Language, or ESL,
students) in the Arlington diocesan schools, largely because
of her young age.
Diane Elliott, special services coordinator in the diocesan
Office of Schools, said, "We don't have a diocesan-wide (ELL)
program, though we are working on designing and implementing
one. We try to support students with individualized
accommodations on a case-by-case basis."
According to a 2008 policy research brief from the National
Council of Teachers of English, an ELL is "an active learner
of the English language who may benefit from various types of
language support programs. This term is used mainly in the
U.S. to describe K-12 students." They are a "highly
heterogeneous and complex group of students," with the
majority of the students born in the United States, to
first-generation immigrant parents.
"Any parent may come to St. Thomas More and inquire about
enrollment," said Nelda Thomas, assistant principal. "Any
parent may fill out an application for their child and have
their child take our placement test. Once the child has taken
the test, we will make a determination about their potential
for success here. When a child gets to kindergarten or first
grade, they must speak a certain amount of English to
succeed. We never want to put a child in a situation knowing
that the possibility for success may be low."
"We make special accommodations for our multicultural
students," said fourth grade teacher, Susan Fonzi. "We work
on vocabulary and grammar."
On Fonzi's cyan bulletin board at the front of the classroom,
the words "STM lives by love" appear in fun, patterned paper.
That philosophy guides Fonzi's approach to students' specific
One morning, Fonzi's language arts class started with
students giving oral history reports. Playing the part of
reporter, each student was asked to write and design a
mini-newspaper on a history book by Jean Fritz, a popular
children's author. The students wrote short articles, comics
and timelines to share with the class.
Projects like this are what "make St. Thomas More's language
arts program so excellent," said Thomas. "We embed ELL
support into the curriculum."
After three presentations, Fonzi had the class transition to
a 15-minute period where they could choose from a list of
activities. Students could write in their journals, read or
work on spelling and grammar exercises, such as cut-and-paste
"The word sorts are individualized according to each child's
vocabulary, what they do and don't know," said Fonzi. "The
students fall within three basic groups, but within these
groups, the lists are personalized."
This sort of activity allows for flexibility with an ELL, but
it requires extra attention on the teacher's part to ensure
that the child's vocabulary is improving.
In addition to in-classroom support, ELLs may work with the
resource or Title I teacher. A resource teacher works with
students experiencing any number of learning impairments,
while a Title I teacher is a federally mandated instructor
who monitors children from low-income families.
At St. Rita School in Alexandria, ELLs spend three periods
each week working with resource teacher Rosemary Lynch,
instead of studying a world language.
One such student is Suleyma Chevez, 14, an eighth-grader
whose parents are from El Salvador. Born in the United
States, Chevez grew up speaking Spanish at home and
interpreting for her parents in public. She attended
Alexandria public schools until her parents enrolled her at
St. Rita for middle school.
"(In public school), they didn't give me any extra help (with
vocabulary and grammar)," said Chevez.
Because Chevez was U.S.-born and assumed to be fully fluent
in English, she was passed from grade level to grade level
without any language assistance.
But at St. Rita - a school with a single classroom per grade
- strengths and weaknesses are less likely to go unnoticed.
"It was clear that (Chevez) needed extra help," said Lynch.
"She's very bright and motivated, so she's shown great
improvement during her time here. She recently wrote an essay
on Edgar Allan Poe's short story 'The Tell-tale Heart' that
was superb. Her teacher loved it. In social studies, she made
a poster that earned (a grade of 100 percent). She came
running down the hall to me, saying, 'Mrs. Lynch, this is the
first time I've gotten a 100.' She had worked so hard on it."
Chevez, who hopes to attend Bishop Ireton High School in
Alexandria or Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington next
year, recently sat for her high school placement test. She
spent hours training with Lynch, reviewing tips and tricks
that would help her tackle English grammar and vocabulary
"I'm as anxious about her getting into (a Catholic high
school) as I was for my own two kids," said Lynch. "But
wherever she goes, I know she will succeed."
Stoddard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.