English Language Development on rise in Lebanon County Schools

Each day, Valerie Carroll, an English Language Development teacher at Palmyra Area School District spends the first hours of her day at the high school, teaching two periods of ELD, then quickly meeting with as many teachers and administrators at the high school as she can. Then, she’s off to Forge Road Elementary to teach smaller groups and support the teachers there.

In those smaller groups, Carroll is nearly in constant conversation with her students, asking and answering questions, having them clarify their thought and ideas, all part of building their language skills.

When Carroll first began working at PASD, it was a considered a small instance school district, with only about 20 English learners total. That has since changed.

Many districts throughout Lebanon County, as well as the Lancaster-Lebanon IU13, according to the Future Ready PA Index, have seen an increase in English language learners over the last few years. English language development educators play a pivotal role in ensuring the success of these students, both in and out of the classroom.

As in all districts in Pennsylvania, newly enrolled students at PASD go through a screening process before they begin classes. If they’re flagged as an ELD student, they’re further assessed to measure language proficiency on a scale from 1-5, through a standards system from the University of Wisconsin-Madison called WIDA.

Carroll, who has been teaching since the early 2000s and has worked as an ELD instructor at Palmyra since 2010, explained that while there is a difference between high school and elementary students, a level 1 or 2 ELD student can sometimes begin with a period of silence, learning the basics of reading, writing and speaking. A level 3possess enough language to get by. At level 4 or 5, students have a noticeable grasp on the language, require much less help and is around the time where things like figurative language begin to come into play.

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Students in these programs advance at varying paces, she said, and it typically takes 5-7 years. If a student were to get stuck somewhere, it’s usually around a level 3, where a student possesses just enough language and comfort in its use to be able to be successful in school.

Once these students reach a level of 4.5, they can be considered to exit the program, which requires two teacher recommendations, enough points earned in a rubric from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and finally a test given in January and February. After they graduate from the program, students are put on a monitoring period where they meet on need-be basis.

Carroll described English as the language of learning in the United States, and that English learners who meet with an ELD specialist every day are able to be more successful in the future because of it, whether that be in job interviews or pursuing higher education after they graduate. Her ultimate goal with all of her students is to get them to a point where they no longer need her.

Because of how language is learned and developed, teaching ELD is highly individualized. Carroll has a learning plan for each of her student, and while she’s not outright saying to them that they need to develop better listening, speaking or writing skills, she’s incorporating those individual needs into her lessons, along with concepts and language that they’ll need to be successful throughout the school year.

For her elementary school, for example, she makes it a point to have them ask basic questions like, ‘What’s your name, how old are you, what is your job?’ when someone new, like a high school or college student visits the class, helping to familiarize them with speaking the language. During a Lebanon Daily News’ visit, Carroll briefly met with four of her students in a small classroom, teaching them about weather and season, content that she knew they would need later in the year.

“These students have the ability to learn. They are smart kids, they just don’t have the English language,” Carroll said. “Especially content classes like science, math and social studies, those are actually the classes that they find that they can be most successful in because in science, most concepts have pictures that can support them. So, if a student can see the picture, they might know the concept in their own language, it’s just a matter of finding a way for them to explain it to you.”

Incorporating images and concise language goes far in helping a student both learn the language and successfully engage with course content, Carroll explained. Meeting with teachers in the district ensures that content and tests are comprehensible for an English learner.

At Palmyra Area School District, Carroll said that Napali, Gujarati and Spanish are the most commonly spoken languages for incoming students. They also see Russian, Mandarin and Khmer speakers.

Fortunately, Carroll doesn’t need to speak all those languages in order to educate an ELD student.

“It doesn’t matter what language they’re speaking, I’m teaching them English. I know English inside out and backwards, I speak it very well, I read well, I write well. My job isn’t to get them to speak their first language, they can do that. My job is to know what their strengths is in their first language that will help them learn their second language and what pitfalls they will come into.”

Carroll said that it’s a myth that adults are incapable of learning a second language. But it’s harder and takes longer to become as proficient in a second language because there’s a stronger foundation of language built, requiring more vocabulary to become proficient.

But it’s easier for an elementary student because they only know a limited amount of language in their first language.

“Just as when you learn your first language first you listen, then you speak, then read and write, it’s the same process for students only they don’t have as much time,” Carroll said. “They don’t get to listen for an entire year and just listen to comprehensible input before they start to babble – and they don’t want to babble because they don’t want to sound unintelligent.”

During a curriculum budget presentation at a March Palmyra Area School District Board Committee meeting, Assistant Supt. Anette Spagnolo requested funding for a new English Language Learner teacher, the fourth for the district and the second new teacher in the last two years.

Citing ongoing increases in English learners in the district, Spagnolo explained to the board that the three teachers, spread across four buildings, were spread thin.

At Palmyra Area School District, there are approximately 100 English learners in the district, and an additional 50 on monitor status. Two years ago, when Spagnolo last requested a new ELL teacher, there were about 60 students in the program.

Spagnolo said that right now, 100 students split between three teachers is a figure that’s workable, however the issue lies in the fact two of teachers are travelling between schools.

“When you have travel time, when you have a teacher that’s in two different buildings, that loss of instructional time to pack up, drive to the next building, unpack, that plays a part of the teachers day.”

A fourth teacher would be utilized at both the high school and Northside Elementary, where EL students who live within walking distance to Northside have to go to instead of attending one of the district’s three other elementary schools.

Funds for the new position are included in the districts current proposed budget, which will be voted on during the May 9 board meeting.

Annville-Cleona School district has seen an increase, said Danielle Heisler, assistant to the superintendent, with 89 ELD students in the district, 15 of whom are on monitor status. She said that in the 2021 school year, the district had only 43 EL students, a significant growth for a district with only around 1,460 students.

Those students, she explained, are currently manageable for the district’s two full time and one part-time ELD educators, however the district is closely monitoring the needs of English learning students as well as the number of these students the district is seeing over time.

The level of needs with those students is big factor for the district, as students who come in as a level one require much more attention.

For Annville-Cleona, professional development, using both resources from WIDA and the IU13, have become key for ELD and regular education teachers. Heisler believes that professional development for teachers is and will continue to be important for educational instructions ability to meet a widening range of needs.

“I think the needs of our students are changing, the more and more that we get, providing our staff with that professional development to really help meet the needs of those students is going to continue to be paramount,” she said.

Amber Abreu, director of student service and English language development at Lebanon School District, currently with around 1,200, or 24%, of the student population being English language learners, said that the district has also seen increases in English language learners in the district over the last few years.

Lebanon School District sees a larger than state average number of English learners and has been including in larger conversations on the topic. In 2018, the district was invited to meet with the Pennsylvania Human Rights commission to talk about English Learners specifically alongside districts like Philadelphia and the School District of Lancaster.

In the 2018-19 school year, the districts population was made up of around 17% English learners. Part of the increase was a result of the hurricane that had struck Puerto Rico. Prior to 2018, Abreu said that percent of English learners in the district was substantially lower.

Because of the large cohort of English learning students in the district, full classes are norm, opposed to teachers pulling the students for small group instruction.

Abreu explained that the challenges in ELD education for both students and teachers are multifaceted and complex, but some of the biggest are when a student is entering the program, as a high school student has much more language to learn than an elementary student, or if a student has additional circumstances like having an IEP for a disability or are transient or experiencing homelessness.

“We have at any given time, 25-30 percent of our students are what are considered newcomers, so they’re brand new to the country or they’ve only been here a short time, and they require more intensive services than a student who was perhaps born here and is in a multilingual home but has progressed to higher levels of English attainment.”

Abreu said that the district reviews foreign transcripts on a near weekly basis.

In finding success with English learners, Abreu said having good teacher who care about the students is key.

Lebanon High School also has a newcomer program where students receive math, science and social instruction by a teacher who understand how to teach English learners, in addition to their regular ELD instruction.

The district currently has around 24 ELD teachers in the district, with every school having 2-6 teachers each, depending on the size of the school and needs of the students.

Abreu said that while everyone progresses at their own pace, the district graduates about 100 students out of their ELD program a year.

Daniel Larlham Jr. is a reporter for the Lebanon Daily News. Reach him atDLarlham@LDNews.com or on X @djlarlham.