More than one in 10 students in Bedford Public Schools is classified as a current or former English Language Learner (ELL).
And according to Bedford ELL program administrator Carrie Powers, they’re in good hands as they fight for literacy. “The staff,” she said, “pays a lot of attention to each child.”
Powers reported to the school committee on Tuesday with details on several recent T highlights. “I can’t say enough about the ELL program and all your work with families, with students and with teachers,” said Powers. school assistant superintendent Tricia Clifford told Powers by way of introduction.
There are about 100 Bedford students who receive direct services, mostly at Davis and Lane schools, and another 170 who are tracked for four years as “former ELLs,” Powers told the school committee. There are eight full-time ESL teachers and the student-faculty ratio is more favorable than most districts in the state, she said. Powers also teaches.
Bedford students speak more than 50 foreign languages, Powers said, the most common being Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin, Korean and Russian.
In an interview later this week, Powers explained that new families are asked about languages spoken at home and, if appropriate, these children are selected for ESL services.
ESL teachers work with groups of English learners both in the classroom and in separate sessions, Powers said. “Teachers wear many hats. They have to teach on so many levels.
According to state requirements, children at the bottom of the screening scale receive at least 450 minutes of support per week; those on the upper side receive at least 225 minutes of ESL instruction, she said. Powers pointed out that in Bedford, those minimums are well exceeded.
An annual proficiency test, known by its acronym ACCESS, measures academic and social literacy in English. “In Bedford, we are consistently above the state average on our ACCESS scores,” Powers told the committee. Last year, the pass rate was 74%, compared to a state average of 29, she said, noting, “Our Covid data was really good. The lessons I saw the teachers doing on Zoom were amazing.
“We constantly monitor students, meet with parents and review student success plans,” Powers said. “We are writing student support plans for students who have not progressed on ACCESS from last year to this year. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into the work.
Powers pointed out in the interview that “it takes seven to ten years to learn a language. We can have students in the curriculum from kindergarten through high school. But it depends – students with strong literacy backgrounds will make it a lot easier transfer to English”, as opposed to students with limited formal education who have never learned to read in their native language.
“The teachers are great here and they give a great education to these students. But it still takes time for a student to learn English.
English learners at Bedford come from a wide range of backgrounds, Power said. They are not only children of highly trained tech professionals, but also families disrupted by war, “political circumstances”, resettlement following the earthquake. “Different things brought people to Bedford,” she said.
In response to a question from school committee member Dan Brosgol, Powers said that due to the Covid-19 pandemic “there weren’t as many international moves.” Now people are returning to the tech workforce, she added.
Powers and two teachers described some of the highlights of the past year:
- An annual awards night. Last May’s event, attended by some 300 people, celebrated multilingualism, Powers said, with students giving testimonials about how multilingualism affects their lives. “It was a wonderful, warm and welcoming night,” said Laure Villarroel, ELL teacher at Lane School. “So many parents have thanked us.”
- An “intense but fun” four-week morning summer program attended by 46 Lane students, Powers continued. The program has been particularly helpful for children without siblings “to practice English and socialize with other children,” said Amy O’Shea, an ELL teacher at Lane School.
- A Parent Advisory Council of English Language Learners, established in 2019. Last year there were two meetings on Zoom: a preview in the fall and a focus on the impact of screen time in the spring . “We’re trying to get our EL parents to feel connected, to feel included, and to be more involved in the school,” Powers said. Another meeting is scheduled for this month.
- A professional development session titled “Separating Difference from Disability” attended by Bedford teachers, administrators and school psychologists.
- A program for adults teaching English as a second language. Since 2018, Powers said, we have provided English as a second language to more than 160 adults,” including parents, grandparents and neighbors of students. “There were 14 community volunteers. Two of our first-year students got their citizenship,” Powers said. “When you educate parents and grandparents, you educate children. It is a systemic approach.
However, Powers told the committee that the $18,000 federal grant that funded this adult education experiment is not available this year. “I get emails and calls asking when is it starting. I’m looking for funding. Unfortunately it’s not valued as much as it should be. Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad said “I’ve set up meetings with people who might be able to help.”
In response to a question, Powers pointed out that an adult course should be free. The community is committed to educating children from pre-kindergarten to 12e year, she observed, and “I don’t see why adults aren’t taught to write their name or address.
She also noted that in schools, the emphasis is on bilingualism, not just English. Families are encouraged to speak their mother tongue and learn English as a second language, she said.
Powers said she appreciates the school committee’s support. “Other districts don’t work that way. You really enjoy ESL.