English language learners making strides in Trumbull schools

The number of English language learners in the Trumbull school system has increased more than 70% over the past five years.

The number of English language learners in the Trumbull school system has increased more than 70% over the past five years.

Contributed / Trumbull Board of Education

Spend some time at the school parking lots and school bus stops at the end of a school day, and you may hear parents greeting their children in dozens of different languages.

“There are about 350 languages spoken in the United States,” said Assistant Superintendent Jonathan Budd. “And here in the Trumbull school system, we have more than 30 different languages spoken in homes of students.”

The school board recently reviewed its latest report on the English Language Learner program in the school system. According to the report, the number of ELL students in the system jumped 74 percent in the past five years. In the 2018-19 school year, there were 214 students in the school system that spoke a language other than English in the home. That number is expected to increase again in the 2019-20 school year, Budd said.

There are numerous reasons for the increase, but the primary factor driving up the number is tighter state standards and annual assessments of the students’ progress, said Superintendent Gary Cialfi.

“And that’s one of the things we are most proud of,” Cialfi said. “Students identified as English language learners have specific exit criteria to exit the program.”

When a student is identified as having poor English proficiency, the schools dedicate resources to increasing the student’s English skills, while also keeping such students engaged with other students.

“They still experience the same rich curriculum, but with specified additional support,” Budd said.

Cialfi said Trumbull’s rate of English language learners exiting the program has been increasing. In 2017-18, 10.3 percent of ELL students, 15 in total, exited the program. That number jumped to 28 total students, 13.1 percent, who exited in 2018-19.

Once the students leave the program, Budd said, the schools monitor them to ensure they do not struggle with the language as they reach higher grades.

“A student may have been assessed as being ready to exit the program, but then he finds himself in advanced chemistry, and now they need a little help,” Budd said.

Top languages

Of the nearly three dozen foreign languages that Trumbull students speak at home, Spanish is the most common, with 21 percent of ELL students speaking Spanish at home. The rest of the top 5 include Portugese (18 percent), Mandarin (8 precent), Arabic (7 percent), and Polish (6 precent).

The remainder of the languages spoken in Trumbull homes are Albanian, Amharic, Bengali, Cambodian, Cantonese, Creole-Haitian, Filipino, French, Fujianese, Georgian, German, Gujarati, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Lingala, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Nepali, Rumanian, Russian, Tamil, Telugu, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese, and Wolof, according to the school board report.

Middlebrook Elementary School has the highest number of English language learners, with 53. Tashua, with 16, has the fewest. The other schools include Booth Hill (33), Daniels Farm (25), Frenchtown (40), and Jane Ryan (19).

The large number of languages can pose an additional challenge for the schools if the parents are non-English speakers. The district makes parent information available in the parents’ primary language when possible, a relatively simple procedure for the more common languages.

But what about someone who speaks Wolof, a West African language spoken by about five million people? When presented with that challenge, Budd said the schools utilized a conference call with a translator based in Virginia to make sure the parents understood the process.

“It’s just good policy to ensure proper communication,” he said.

Even outside the schools, the town is also committed to communication with students and parents. Last month, Cialfi said, the town and school system began a collaborative effort to help ELL students and parents by utilizing another town resource - the library.

“We’re very proud that the town and schools have worked together to maximize resources,” Budd said. “With all students, it’s important to keep reading over the summer, but for ELL students, it’s expecially critical.”

The first step in getting an ELL family to use the library is often simply introducing them to the concept, Cialfi said. For many people who grew up in other countries, a government-funded library that distributes information to residents is literally a foreign concept.

“Depending on where they are from, it may simply not exist,” he said.