By Irina Mills
In the past several years, Great Falls Public Schools has seen a threefold increase in students who come from multilingual backgrounds. These students bring a variety of languages, cultures, and educational experiences to our K-12 classrooms. However, they have one thing in common – they all are in the process of acquiring English in addition to learning academic content.
Our district team of English Learner Support of one and one-half teachers supports these learners in pursuing their American Dream of getting a quality education.
When working with such a diverse group of students, differentiation is necessary every step of the way. We start with assessing students’ language skills in Academic English, the language of school, as well as any interrupted learning that students may have experienced in the past.
This allows us to work with school teams to create personalized instructional plans for each student’s language and academic growth. For this to happen, we have to learn as much as we can about our students.
For example, some students know very little English, but have strong language and literacy skills in their home language. We build on that strength to help them transfer those skills to their new classroom. Others may have enough “playground English” to fool anyone that they are okay, when they really struggle with schoolwork due to lack of Academic Language skills.
As a result, students’ educational paths becomes as unique as they are, based on the assets and needs that they bring to the classroom.
Serving multilingual and multicultural learners in our schools relies on a great deal of teamwork. Unlike other parts of the country, where schools have English learner specialists in every building, our district is fortunate to have a team of one and a half. In the same day, we may travel to work with elementary, middle, and high school students.
To maximize our impact on student learning, we team up with classroom teachers and intervention specialists and share instructional strategies that have proven successful for each student. It may even be as simple as sharing a few phrases that a classroom teacher can practice with a newcomer English Learner, so that they have more success making friends at school.
Most importantly, we partner with parents of our English Learners. Getting to know the family helps us learn more about each student and their culture.
In return, we help parents navigate the school system here in Great Falls and direct them to additional resources. Often our team has an opportunity of being first to welcome these new families to our community, and it feels wonderful to represent Great Falls and our schools in that way.
The best part of the job, though, is being able to follow our students through the years and see their growth both in language and academics, watching them chase their dreams.