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Arlington Diocesan teachers provide English Language Learners with special support

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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 needs.

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 word sorts.

"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 questions.

"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 cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015