Getting Answers: how schools plan to help multilingual students post-COVID

Tests show students across the board saw learning loss due to the pandemic, but English learners were particularly impacted.
Published: Oct. 11, 2022 at 10:29 PM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WGGB/WSHM) - Tests show students across the board saw learning loss due to the pandemic, but English learners were particularly impacted.

Western Mass News is getting answers from Springfield and Holyoke school districts on the efforts to bring these students up to speed.

Students from diverse backgrounds find common ground in a school district where 40 different languages are spoken.

“I speak Somali.”

“I speak Arabic.”

“Hablo español.”

These are the voices of Springfield Public Schools’ multilingual learners, who make up 30% of the district.

“When school shut down, it was a travesty for our English learners,” said Springfield Public Schools’ Director of Multilingual Language Learners Kerry Martins.

Virtual learning meant linguistic isolation, and immigrant students were no longer immersed in the English language.

“So without that, we saw a massive drop in our testing and our scores when it came to seeing how much English they learned,” Martins told us.

In 2021, testing showed only 13% of English language learners in Springfield were making progress toward proficiency. In 2022, that number climbed to 43%.

At Gerena Community School, Principal Cynthia Escribano told Western Mass News that keeping English language learners in the classroom is key.

“We used to pull them out, and our data really wasn’t moving the way we wanted it to move, and we completely just changed what we were doing to support our students, and since we did that, our multi-linguistic learners have made significant growth,” she explained.

The language teachers at Gerena “push” into the classroom, providing support and clarification for students, instead of pulling kids out of class.

9-year-old Ethan Ortiz moved to Springfield knowing very little English.

“I was in Puerto Rico,” he said. “I had to come over here.”

Now, his favorite subject is reading.

“He just brings so much motivation and engagement in the classroom,” said Jane Ottani, one of the English language learner teachers at Gerena. “He wants to soak up everything that he can.”

Holyoke Public Schools saw the same concerning dip in learning among their English language learners. In 2021, just 7% of students were making progress. In 2022, that number rose to 24%.

As the vast majority speak Spanish, the district offers a dual language program where students are taught all subjects in both languages daily.

“Language is part of identity and culture, and honoring the language of the families who we serve is the first thing that we must do,” Holyoke Public Schools’ Multilingual Education Director Jen Albury told us.

That is the goal at Springfield’s Sci-Tech High School, where teachers said that test scores do not paint the full picture as immigrant students often face greater burdens.

For Abdi Rahman Muhammad, who speaks Somali, that includes being apart from family.

“Definitely, the challenge I faced was leaving without my mom,” he told us.

“When I get here, I don’t know English at all,” said Craude, a senior at Sci-Tech High School.

“I don’t speak English, I don’t know anything,” added 11th grader Maryan Lawmay, who speaks Arabic. “I have to talk to people, new school… everything was difficult.”

However, ESOL teacher Jennie Schuetz said that the students are resilient.

“The growth that you see in the first year alone is explosive,” she told us.

While learning English, the multilingual students said that it is important to continue honoring their culture, which Abdi said can easily slip away.

“My little brother, he was like five, he came here and now, he’s forgetting the language, most of them, and he’s speaking English,” he said.

Schuetz said that the students are role models – not a burden, but an asset.

“It’s huge for the community at large to see how many different cultures are actually in Springfield,” she told us. “The more we know about other people, the better we are as people in general.”

The students know that speaking multiple languages will be a benefit to themselves and the community.

“Know more than one language in addition to your first language, it is so good because you can communicate with other people and help them, too,” 10th grader and Spanish-speaker Marilyn Yuridia Rodriguez said.