TEWKSBURY — Students and families gathered in the large group instruction room at the high school last week to meet the staff from Tewksbury Public Schools who support students who do not speak English as their first language.
Led by Karen Hodgson, a caring team of teachers work tirelessly to be sure that all families coming into the district from all over the globe, know that they are welcomed and supported in any way possible. The district is working with students who represent 17 languages this year; the primary influx recently has been from South and Central American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil and the Dominican Republic.
Students from Egypt, India, China, Malaysia and some central European countries have arrived with limited-to-no English language exposure.
During a student’s intake process into the district, language support needs are discerned. A full English immersion model is offered, with students pulled out of class for one-on-one work and ACCESS testing, a state and federal assessment to measure their proficiency in reading, writing, listening, and speaking English, as well as the progress they are making in learning English.
According to Assistant Superintendent Brenda Theriault-Regan, 95 percent of the district’s teachers are SEI (Sheltered English Immersion) certified, a state requirement designed to close the proficiency gap for EL students. According to Regan, the district has been used as a model by the Department of Education for its excellence in reporting and comprehensive nature of compliance tracking for English language education.
Students are assessed on their one year growth and then a new target is set for them. Unfortunately, the district does not qualify for any grants because the threshold is higher than the number of EL students that the district receives. However, the district values every single student and is making it work.
“We will do whatever is necessary to support these families,” said Hodgson, “whether it means getting them supplies, clothing, or helping them get a Patriots shirt so they feel included on a sports-themed day.”
The EL team goes beyond just language learning. Hodgson also wanted to emphasize that EL students are not necessarily at an economic disadvantage, but are at a cultural disadvantage, having to learn how the American school system works.
Hodgson explained that an additional hurdle is connecting with EL parents.
“Our EL parents are not accustomed to the notion of teacher conferences,” said Hodgson.
She explained that some parents believe that a conference means the student is in trouble, not understanding that it is a time to communicate about the student and share successes as well as discuss additional means of support. The open house has been a positive event for the EL team in this regard.
Once students “graduate” from the program, they are monitored for four years to track their progress. They become FEL, or former English learners and are able to be reintroduced into EL instruction should it be warranted. The program is and has been successful.
Nelson Carrasco was at the open house and graduated from Tewksbury Memorial High School in 2015.
“I did not speak English when I came to TMHS as a junior,” he said.
Through the program, Carrasco graduated and went on to Middlesex Community College. He is now a linesman with National Grid and speaks English fluently. Carrasco credits the teachers and said that reading simple books at first really gave him a boost. Hodgson credits Carrasco’s work ethic as well.
“These kids are eager to learn and want to achieve in this new environment. They are now bilingual and have a very marketable language toolkit,” she said.
To that end, TMHS is also proud to offer the Seal of Biliteracy, a graduation accolade which is awarded to students who attain intermediate to high levels of proficiency in reading, writing, listening and communication in another language. The benefits of this distinction extend to college applications and employers, and can be achieved by both EL and native English-speaking students.
Families who have EL needs are encouraged to reach out to their teacher, building principal, or the Director of Student and Family Support, Karen Baker-O’Brien.