‘It takes a village’: Schools, community step up to support students learning English
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For students who are learning English, the disruption to education wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic is weightier.
However the Steamboat Springs School District and the larger community have stepped up to ensure those students are still getting as much support as possible.
The students — designated as “emerging bilinguals” to highlight assets as opposed to deficits — identified with the greatest language needs have been able to continue attending school five days a week.
On the two or three days other students are learning at home virtually, teachers have found ways to find the time, space and resources to provide the emerging bilinguals with classroom time and additional support.
“We found early on a lot of students weren’t engaged online,” said B Torres, the district’s interpreter/translator and community liaison. “It’s hard for any kid to engage virtually in school.”
But it’s even harder for kids with limited English — not only in the coursework but navigating new technology and a different system, and often without support at home from someone who speaks English.
Ann Coon, English language specialist at Soda Creek Elementary School, said she submitted a proposal early on to have her most at-risk kids — which include a significant percentage of emerging bilinguals — in class five days a week. She was thrilled when it was accepted.
“When everyone is going through a tough time,” Torres said, “And the students who are new to the language need additional support — the district stepped up. The teachers pushed for it, and the administration provided support.”
Parents also became advocates, Torres said.
And many of those parents are working multiple jobs and cannot work from home.
Torres said she has had requests from other parents about being able to send their kids five days a week, but with limited resources, they must identify the kids with the greatest needs. That includes other students with special needs who have also been able to continue going to school five days a week.
In those conversations, when Torres explains to parents there are students with a higher need, she said the response has always been accepting.
“Throughout the school year, I’ve been so impressed by the families and their sense of compassion and empathy,” she said.
Like their peers, emerging bilinguals don’t have the same classroom schedules as before the pandemic. On the days the rest of their cohort is at home, they are able to either join another class or get specialized support to reinforce what they are learning on their classroom days.
What their days look like differs by grade level, English level and school, Torres described. Each school adopted a different version, and all the same COVID-19 safety and mitigation measures apply to the students who are attending five days a week, she added.
At all schools, the creativity, collaboration and scraping together of resources “shows how the school and teachers go above and beyond to provide support,” Torres said.
It is without a doubt extra work for many of the teachers, but they have figured it out. Coon said where she used to have breaks, now she is with kids all day, every day.
At the high school, the field house is being used as an academic support room for all students who are falling behind, Torres said, an idea that came to fruition only in the past couple months.
As the pandemic continues, Torres said the district continues to identify the students who need more, and figure out how to provide that extra support.
“It’s been an evolution in trying things, and seeing what works and what doesn’t,” she said.
The district is now working directly with local nonprofit Integrated Community in referring students to their tutoring program.
When COVID-19 hit, the Study Friends program that pairs volunteers with bilingual students stopped, said Jerry Hernandez, education coordinator for Integrated Community.
Physical distancing became a huge barrier. And transitioning to virtual took a lot of time and work, he described.
A primary issue was a security, when it came to connecting Integrated Community volunteers to kids on the district-provided Chrome books. After a number of discussions and some tech modifications, Hernandez said, Integrated Community was able to get approved as a domain permitted to connect to the school’s network.
Now, there are more students participating in the Study Friends program than before the pandemic — and more volunteers wanting to help. Where there were about 20 to 30 students pre-COVID-19, Hernandez said he now has 50 signed up.
He has more than 30 active volunteers and about 20 in the process of getting paired up.
“I was blown away by the Steamboat volunteer spirit,” he said.
And as each student gets matched with a volunteer, Hernandez takes part in the initial meeting along with the teacher and family.
The program began largely after evidence showed bilingual kids were falling behind because they didn’t have anyone at home who spoke English and could help with homework.
There are numerous challenges to continuing the program virtually, Hernandez said, especially with scheduling, and younger kids needing some at-home guidance in getting logged on.
There’s also been a huge technology learning curve for students and families, especially those learning English, and some kids are more comfortable on screen than others.
But the fact it is up and running again, and with more students than ever, is a huge success.
Another program — one that helps emerging bilingual kindergartners who may not have had any preschool experience get accustomed to the classroom — did have to be canceled. Integrated Community has also focused volunteers on the tutoring program after the adult learning program dropped off significantly.
Keeping anything going takes creativity, Coon said.
The Homework Club at Soda Creek Elementary School provided kids with after school tutors and Friday field trips, but the district canceled everything extracurricular, Coon said.
Just three weeks ago, the program found its way online through Google Meet sessions.
The volunteer tutors remain incredibly, if not even more, dedicated, Coon said, with some tutoring three times a week. And many of them, retirees, said they’ve been learning about technology from their students.
As far as the field trips go, Coon said Alpine Bank recently donated lift tickets, and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club will provide equipment.
In another program, a group of about 25 students from sixth through 12th grade — designated as “newcomers” — are spending five days a week at Perry Mansfield Performing School and Camp.
They are part of the Newcomer program, which enrolls students who are both new to the country and new to English.
The additional space has made five days a week possible for the program, Torres said.
There are, of course, drawbacks in the kids not attending some classes with their other peers or mingling at lunch, Torres noted. They may not feel as much a part of the district, and may have a more difficult transition next year.
The “optics of keeping the Black and brown kids in a separate group,” was also a topic of discussion, she said, “But we realized the benefit far outweighed the optics.”
Safety for the students and staff is kept at the forefront.
Quarantine orders are a challenge for all students — but that can be even more challenging for students whose parents have limited flexibility in their work schedules.
“Some families I talk to with quarantine orders feel like a rug has been pulled out from under them,” Torres said. “People are being really resilient in being able to pivot, but it’s exhausting. Parents are ready for it to be over.”
Many of her working families rely on other family and neighbors to help with child care for the younger kids, she said. Hernandez noted a lot of his families have to take their kids to work with them.
Torres — who is always doing the job of at least two people — joked she doesn’t remember what she did before COVID-19.
“I make so many calls related to COVID,” she said, as she is the entire district’s designated person to communicate with Spanish speaking families.
Torres noted her families are understanding about quarantine orders, and know it is part of what needs to be done so their kids can spend as many days in the classroom as possible, for which they are grateful.
She also has parents reach out to her when they find out they are on quarantine from work, and in her experience, kids are being kept home when they need to be kept home.
“On 85% of the quarantine calls,” she said, “The first question they ask is if the person (who tested positive) is OK.”
And while the quarantines have been numerous — especially in January — there has yet to be evidence of the virus actually spreading in school.
“I feel like everyone in the school community knows what’s at stake,” Torres said. “What is at stake is losing in-person instruction. And no one wants to go back to March.”
Torres has seen families move away to other states or back to native countries. When the work is gone, some families have had no choice but to leave, she said. Many immigrant families work in the hospitality industry and have lost jobs or had hours cut, and many don’t qualify for benefits, or are hesitant to apply because of immigration status. Or there is a pride aspect in asking for help.
The financial impact has hit immigrant families hard. Torres, Coon and Hernandez all work to connect families to additional resources.
“Schools aren’t just about academics anymore,” Torres said. “It’s been like that for a long time. We help make sure the students are well fed, warm, have a safe place to go at night and come in ready to learn.”
And something that used to be an inconvenience — like a frozen pipe or medical emergency — now “can very quickly turn into a crisis.”
Hernandez described an information lag and access to information not coming as quickly or easily for non-English speakers.
And there has been a lot fear paralyzing the immigrant community, Hernandez said, especially over the past four years.
But the larger community is also always working to improve the communication aspect on the public health side of the pandemic.
“From the beginning of this pandemic, we have worked closely with community partners to ensure that we also reach our non-English speaking members of Routt County,” said Robin Schepper, with the Routt County Office of Community Engagement.
“Last Spring, we worked with Integrated Community on testing clinics for non-English speakers. In addition, we continue to offer English and Spanish versions of many of materials including our Vaccine Interest Form, our press releases on our website, graphics on our social media pages and public service announcements on Steamboat Radio in English and Spanish. Integrated Community has been a fantastic partner in sharing much of the public health guidance on their communication networks as well.”
In spite of best efforts, Torres is realistic about the pandemic having an impact on learning — for all students.
“I think across the board there are going to be gaps in learning. Next year is going to be a lot of work to make sure everyone is where they need to be, and to identify skills that are missing,” she said. “If you are only going to school two or three days a week, there are definitely going to be losses.”
But Torres, Coon and Hernandez are very proud of the work being done by the district and other organizations and individuals to minimize those gaps for students in the process of English acquisition.
“It’s naive to say that next year will be a normal year. There are going to be gaps,” Torres said. “But I have no doubt the team I work with is ready to meet those challenges head on.”
Coon described a recent effort by the emerging bilinguals team to form focus groups with families with limited English. “We really want to hear the voices and concerns and questions from families,” she said. “ And there is a tendency to be silent.”
Coon is already looking toward the summer — there is still funding for programming, but they have to find ways to keep it up and running.
“It really takes a village,” Torres said.
And there are numerous other partners beyond the district and Integrated Communities. Torres and the others named just of a few other organizations which have stepped up, including Partners in Routt County, Boys & Girls Club, LiftUp, United Way, Council on Aging and Northwest Colorado Health, among others.
Coon echoed the sentiment.
“It takes a community,” she said. “The volunteers have just been unbelievable.” And from businesses and individuals, “The generosity is unprecedented. There are so many people and community organizations involved in the success of these kids.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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