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It's the right thing to do for the kids

By JUDITH LINDER-ASHAKIH • Feb 1, 2018 at 2:00 PM

Let's say you have been some where English is not spoken, but where maybe French, Italian, or possibly Polish, Malay, or Japanese is. You may have experienced confusion, irritation or dismay trying to express your needs and thoughts. That is the situation Elena Perez is helping Spanish speaking students to overcome through the Norwalk City Schools.

Perez has headed the program for English Language Learning for two years and expects it to expand over time. Perez said "this program has grown from having one teacher for all six elementary grades to having three fulltime teachers who are bilingual in Spanish and English. It covers all schools and all 12 grades in the NCS system. We serve 117 students this year. Not all of them are from Mexico —  we have some from Honduras and Guatemala."

Because Perez went through learning English as a second language herself this experience helps her plan how to assist the students to the utmost of their abilities. "I know the feeling of being scared and wondering 'What are they saying?' Here, we make learning fun. We let them know they can do it."

"Julissa Reyes and Brenda Kraus and I cover all the schools and grades. It is a full day's schedule for all of us, and there is lots of preparation involved due to the age differences (from first grade to high school). We travel between several schools each day on a full schedule. We expect that all children are different and learn differently. We do lots of individual work with students."

Corey Ream, Director of Operations, joined the discussion expressing the need "to reach out to families, that nothing in school should be intimidating. With Elena on board the programs are more structured, coordinated and strengthened. Parent-Teacher conferences always have a bilingual assistant so parents feel more comfortable, and every document is printed in both languages. We want all parents to get the same information at the same time. Parents can call Elena in case they have concerns."

"When anyone calls, no matter what, we make sure they can reach a bilingual teacher at every school, every day, maybe not all day but we will be available for them when the parents come," Elena stresses. "Since many parents move often (for work) they sometimes need help with transportation of children to school, or to give us a new address. Sometimes there are behavior concerns." This newly organized ELL system can help in many unexpected instances, she adds.

"Because not all parents have more than third grade education, sometimes they don't return papers that need their signatures. Their young children may not understand the more complicated language either. Our focus is on good communication with parents to get them involved and to come to meetings. English classes for parents are now being held here. ASPIRE is the name of the program through Norwalk City Schools. Classes are held Wednesday and Thursday at the NCS Administration Building and flyers explaining it can be picked up there, too. Ken Hughes, a licensed teacher with over 25 years experience, can be reached for information at 440-785-8717 or at [email protected] It is wonderful to be bilingual. This has future advantages for the whole family," Elena continues.

Ream emphasized that "The kids are great, to a student they are respectful, hard working, eager to learn. ELL students did a fantastic job and showed a tremendous amount of growth in the past year. There was a lot of hard work on the part of students and teachers. They all want to do well. We just have to help them."

Elena mentioned that "Three older bilingual students at NHS are already helping a group of ELL students with homework assistance after school. Their mentor with the ninth to twelfth graders is Mr. Snell who is fluent in both Spanish and English. These students are eager to help and empathetic since they have also been in the shoes of the younger learners."

Another exciting innovation will be a class soon to be taught by Perez for "14 NCS teachers and a principal who want to learn more Spanish, who already use what they have learned in high school or college in their own classes."

"The Main Street principal and our department want to do a cultural awareness celebration where students dig out information on their family backgrounds. There will be food and music. We are still putting it together. If it goes well we can mention it to other schools," says Perez.

According to Ream, "There is a willingness to acknowledge the differences. We don't want them to lose their identity or language in the process (of learning English). It's the right thing to do for the kids."

"We have great support from administration for tools, books, learning materials, all sorts of catalogues for the ELL program. It really helps out," Elena adds. "I love helping these kids learn because I've been there."

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