Equity and Success for English Learners - Grand prize winner

Critical Care

Newport News Public Schools, Newport News, Virginia

Over 20,000 enrollment

Teacher Robynn Bevelacqua sits in a chair surrounded by fourth and fifth graders. She eyes two giggling boys and gently invites one boy to come sit next her. She resumes the language lesson for her class of English as a Second Language (ESL) students.

Bevelacqua is an ESL newcomer teacher in Newport News Public Schools, located in Newport News, Virginia. She and her fellow teachers are part of networks of supports for the districts’ linguistically and culturally diverse English Learner (EL) population.

The school district in the Tidewater region of Virginia has seen a staggering 600 percent increase in the number of ESL students in the past decade. More than 52 languages are spoken, and many students come with limited or no schooling in their home countries. District officials have responded by revamping with specialized training for ESL teachers and regular classroom teachers, translation services, parent classes, and other support for students and families.

Newport News Public Schools has an enrollment of 29,000 students. Demographically, the school division is approximately 53 percent black, 24 percent white, and 13 percent Hispanic. Nearly 60 percent are classified as economically disadvantaged.

Newport News Public Schools has increased the graduation rate to 93.4 percent in 2016 from 72.9 percent in 2008. During the same time, the dropout rate decreased to 2.3 percent.

“We put an equity lens on absolutely everything we do because we owe it to our families and owe it to our kids. Success can’t be dependent on the color of your skin and the amount of money in your pocket,” says interim Superintendent Brian Nichols.

Many of the ESL students and their families came to Newport News as refugees through Catholic Charities, which works with refugee centers to bring families to the region. Catholic Charities sends them to school, with the first stop at the district’s Welcome Center.

At the Welcome Center, staff members assist parents in enrolling their children in school. Parents find out about other resources, including workshops and classes held at the center. At the same time, a specialist assesses the children to find out what services and supports they will need.

Most children will initially spend time in newcomer classes like Bevelacqua’s at Macintosh Elementary School. The classes are an intensive program taught by a dually certified teacher—elementary education and ESL. The teachers are doing triple duty: teaching them English and the regular subject matter, as well as acclimating them to the U.S. and to school.

Some children come to school with very little schooling experience, says April Vazquez, the ESL instructional supervisor for the school division. “A lot of our refugees that have come to us have never even held a pencil before.” Others have never operated a water fountain or flushed a toilet.

“And so these staff were specifically trained to work with students and helping them acculturate to US schools and just immersing them in English,” she says.

As their English proficiency grows, students go to their regular school sites—and where general classroom teachers also have ESL training and support.

Many staff members speak Spanish. Translators of other languages—say Urdu or Swahili—are not readily available. To assist, parents carry cards with their native language written on it. They present the card at their schools, and the staff members can call an instant translation service called Language Line, which translates the conversations for the families and the staff members.

“And so we hope that that's more of a source of comfort to our families, that they can communicate with us and that need be met for them and then also that need be met for us in trying to have communication with them,” says Vazquez.

The translation service is used in different circumstances. Leslie Wilson, the school and family engagement coach for the ESL department, uses the service when she does home visits. “I can arrive and make a phone call immediately in their language. And we sit down. Just put it on speaker phone, and we have a three-way conversation, which is very helpful in having a strong communication with these families,” she says.

Communication and outreach to families is a large part of the success of the program. “A major part of our philosophy is: When you have a strong family, you have a strong school and you have a strong community,” says Nichols.

Getting to know the parents and hearing their stories is a large part of her job, Bevelacqua says. Many parents gave up everything when they arrived here, and they are starting over.

“The world’s a very mixed-up place right now, and I hope this is a place of refuge for the children who come into my care,” she says. “I tell their parents when I meet them that I will care for their children the way I would care for my own children.”

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