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English Language Educators Implement Lessons Learned To New School Year

Shelly Fair.jpg
Photo provided by Shelly Fair
Shelly Fair, director of the Columbia Public Schools EL Department

Columbia Public Schools’ English Learning Department is welcoming new faces to its classrooms this semester after a decrease in students last school year.

Missouri saw a nearly 5% decline in English learning student enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The shift to online learning took a different toll on EL students, or students learning English as a second language, said Shelly Fair, the director of CPS’ EL Department.

“The biggest challenge was communication and staying in contact with our students and families,” Fair said. “English learner families not only have the obstacle of dealing with technology — which faced all families, regardless of their language, background or language use — but then you add the language barrier into that, and it's even more difficult.”

In 2020, the department saw its average of 1,200 EL student enrollment dip down by 20 students – but fast forward to this school year, the department has grown to 1,260 in just the first month back. Fair said the number will only continue to go up as the department expects to welcome more students and their families.

Now, as EL educators of the state’s fifth-largest school district welcome students back, Fair said they’re building on the lessons they’ve learned this past virtual school year.

“We improved on communication with families,” Fair said. “We utilized a lot of more district communication using Google Translate and the Word Translate feature than we ever had before because we needed to get information to families quickly.

Another online tool the EL Department took advantage of is Zoom, the popular video conferencing application, Fair said. The department found that hosting important events on Zoom, such as parent-teacher conferences, provided more accessible opportunities for EL students and their families.

“In the past, we tried to get as many families as we could to have parent meetings at the district level, and those were never well attended,” Fair said. “We're hoping that Zoom offers a platform that families can access because they don't have to find childcare, they don't need transportation, and they can just join us.”

Fair also mentioned that Zoom has allowed interpreters to reach families from across the district and different schools without ever having to be in two places at the same time.

As of September, the school district represents 70 languages – the top five languages being Spanish, Arabic, Korean, Swahili and Chinese, according to district data provided by Fair. The sudden transition to remote learning pushed educators to think of alternative ways to keep EL families informed, Fair said. It included partnering with various local organizations and interpreter services to translate pertinent information coming from a district level.

With a mainly online school year, experts worried about the impact this would have on EL student’s proficiency skills. According to a report by Migration Policy Institute, “For many EL students, school may be their main or only source of exposure to listening, speaking, writing, and reading English… without persistent engagement, English language development may stall.”

But for CPS’ EL department, there has been no data that shows their EL students English skills regressed, Fair said.

“We always strive to meet students where they are – whether that's in content knowledge or in language development, and then we help them grow from there,” Fair said. “It stands to reason that at home, they were using their home language more during the day than they would have they been in school. But they still had the support in language development that they always do. It just looked different than it would in person.”

Although educators and students managed this past school year filled with lessons learned for everyone, Fair said it’s safe to say teachers are delighted to be back in class with their students and look forward to having a hands-on, in-person school year.

“I think that all of our [EL] teachers would agree that absolutely everything that they want is to be in-person, see their students face-to-face, and to be able to sit with them around a table or on a carpet and work on things that they need to learn,” Fair said. “It's why teachers became teachers.”