Virginia Teachers Adapt, Innovate To Help English Learners

Miguel Suero (left), a Salem Red Sox pitcher, reads yellow sticky notes with Salem High School students Eldin Arriaga (middle) and Brian Villegas while on a scavenger hunt through the high school, on May, 4, 2022, in Roanoke, Va. (Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP)
Miguel Suero (left), a Salem Red Sox pitcher, reads yellow sticky notes with Salem High School students Eldin Arriaga (middle) and Brian Villegas while on a scavenger hunt through the high school, on May, 4, 2022, in Roanoke, Va. (Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP)
View All (4)

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — Spanish language filled the Salem High School hallways as baseball players and students teamed up for a schoolwide scavenger hunt.

About 15 Salem Red Sox team members joined more than 30 English language learners in early May as they searched for sticky notes with clues that sent them to their next objective. Written in English in black marker on a yellow note were the words: “Where do you go to eat lunch?”

Two pitchers on the minor league baseball team, Miguel Suero and Reidis Sena, towered over the trio of high school students who led them around the school. They hustled to the cafeteria and found the next clue. Tossing Spanish words back and forth as if playing catch, the players moved cautiously between English and Spanish.

The scavenger hunt, developed by Salem High English learner teacher Nolan Shigley, was a way for students to practice their English while working alongside the young ballplayers, many of whom were also learning English. After taking a while to warm up, players and students were soon laughing and high-fiving each other as they searched for clues.

“They’re learning the value of learning a new language and adapting to a new culture, but also embracing their own culture and that it’s okay to be Latino in a new country,” Shigley said. “It’s OK to speak Spanish and English, you know, learning to support each other and understanding that adults have the same experiences.”

Teachers have been at the forefront of finding innovative ways to help this growing population of English learners in the Roanoke County, Salem and Roanoke school systems.

Salem’s school division since 2014 has seen a 7% growth in students eligible for English learner services. The city schools serve 142 EL students among 3,800 students enrolled.

Roanoke County Public Schools’ EL population is up 25% over the past seven years, with 617 students eligible for EL services in a division with about 13,000 students.

School systems are expanding their services not only to align with state regulations, but also to implement ideas from teachers and faculty to better meet the needs of their English learners.

Commonwealth Catholic Charities, a nonprofit that helps refugees, has resettled 199 individuals so far in the Roanoke and New River valleys in its 2021-22 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The number of refugees has more than doubled in the past three years, climbing from 92 settlements in 2019.

Katie Hedrick, bilingual support specialist for the city of Roanoke, said there are multiple reasons for the rise in refugees coming to the region.

“We’re one of only (three) cities in Virginia with refugee resettlement organizations,” Hedrick wrote in an email. “And the number of refugees admitted has grown with both the upheaval in Afghanistan and the change in federal administration.”

When one cultural or language group settles in a specific area, she added, other family members are attracted to move near their family members, giving them familiarity and a sense of community.

In Roanoke City Public Schools, the number of EL students has grown by 50% over the past nine years, with more than 1,630 English learners comprising nearly 12% of an enrollment of approximately 14,000 students.

An alphabet soup of acronyms describes people learning English who are coming from other language backgrounds. Federal, state and local programs use either English learner (EL), English Language Learner (ELL) or English as a Second Language (ESL). Virginia localities employ EL, which is the term used predominantly in this story.

Sharon Francisco saw a need and she acted on it. Years ago, she started an after-school club to help EL students in Roanoke County, where their population was climbing. Students she worked with since kindergarten see her in Mount Pleasant Elementary School hallways and say excitedly: “See you this afternoon in homework club!”

Francisco, an EL teacher in Roanoke County, said her students do not get the help they need with homework because many of their family members are non-English speakers or speak very little English.

“This was the one school where pretty much all of my parents spoke Spanish, and spoke very little English, so they were really not able to help my kids with homework,” Francisco said. “The teachers understand that. But at the same time, the kids really needed help with homework.”

She started Homework Help Club so that her English learners could keep up in school.

The kids gathered around tables in the elementary school library, to get down to business.

“Open your backpacks; let’s get busy,” Francisco said to a couple students chatting in English after a snack. The chatter grew quiet, other than the voices of students reading books or spelling vocabulary words with instructors’ help.

Francisco has worked with students at three elementary schools in the division, but saw the biggest need for additional homework help at Mount Pleasant, where she works with 14 English learner students.

“Everybody I have, except for one, was born here,” she said. ”As far as I can remember, all of them came (to school) speaking English. Except for maybe one in fourth grade.”

Even children who were born in the United States need help with English-speaking skills, Francisco said.

“They’re still living in two worlds, basically, because they still have that Spanish influence at home,” she said. “And then they hear only English at school. So they’re still processing everything twice.”

Spanish is the most frequently spoken non-English language in Roanoke County schools, followed by high numbers of Arabic, Vietnamese and Mandarin speakers, according to Cammie Williams, supervisor of English Language Learner and World Language programs with Roanoke County Public Schools.

The division has 27 schools serving grades K-12, which means English learners in the district are spread out across the county, requiring EL teachers to travel from school to school. Williams explains that navigating the teacher’s travel time and time with students is a challenge.

“Because our population is so spread out, not all teachers have had the experience of having an EL (student) in their class,” Williams said. “And I think that that is something that I just wish for every instructor, because you see a student through a different lens. I think some of the strategies that we use with our students ended up being good for all students, and learning about different cultures, I think, just enriches classroom experience, again, for all students.”

Four new positions have been added during her tenure, because of increased EL enrollment, new course offerings and changing state requirements for more teachers per EL student.

The county school system also added a family liaison to ease adjustments to new communities and schools, Williams said. Federal money from Title III of the Every Child Succeeds Act, which can be used to help immigrant students and non-English speakers, funded that position, she said.

Back at Salem High School, the scavenger hunt between EL students and ballplayers was working.

Eldin Arriaga, a junior, led the way as he and his scavenger hunt team read clues that took the students and Red Sox members to the high school gym.

“It’s just crazy how they are trying to play baseball so they can get a better future,” he said of the players, many of whom are also learning English.

Arriaga was born in Honduras and loves to play soccer. He had fun during the scavenger hunt, learning to connect with others while speaking English. He said it helped him to be less shy.

“It’s good to be able to spend time with your community,” Eldin said.

The hometown Red Sox seemed to fit right in with the EL students at Salem High School.

When Shigley, the school’s EL teacher, moved to the area from Richmond last year and went to a Salem Red Sox game, he discovered how similar the ballplayers were to his students.

He noticed more than half of the Salem Red Sox team was Latino, like the majority of his English learner students at the high school. And, like his students, the team has an English tutor for many of the players who are also learning English.

“These ballplayers are on this parallel journey with our kids here,” Shigley said. “They get moved around maybe a little bit more than my kids do. But they all have this goal of adapting to a new culture and learning to speak English and surviving. They’re doing it with baseball, my kids are doing (it) with education and work. It’s nice to let my kids know that they’re not alone, and the players know that they’re not alone in this journey.”

As the number of English learners increased in the Salem school system, the need to hire more full-time teachers dedicated to educating and caring for those students became evident, according to Megan Crew, who is in her first year as the division coordinator in Salem for English Learners and Early Childhood programs.

Before 2019, Salem had one part-time tutor who worked in three of the four elementary schools, and the middle and high schools each had a tutor, or part-time EL teaching position.

This year, the school division had three full-time EL teachers. For next year, it has hired another tutor and a fourth full-time EL teacher for the division.

Shigley, who started his position this school year, is the first full-time EL teacher at Salem High School, which previously had only a part-time position.

He began the 2021-22 school year launching a program of inclusion, to encourage English learners to participate more in high school sports and activities.

A collage of photos from activities the group did together hangs in the classroom: prom, football games, meeting the Red Sox players and other experiences the students didn’t have until this year.

After the baseball players left the school, Shigley reflected on the morning’s excitement with seven students from Honduras, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Their desks in his newcomers’ class faced the front of the room in a half-circle, flags of countries from around the world hanging in the classroom behind them.

“What is one really interesting thing about a baseball player today that you learned?” Shigley asked.

“They are personable,” one student said.

“They are tall.”

“Very young.”

“EL teachers are very much also social workers and liaisons,” Crew said. “They’re doing so much more than educating the students with academics, but they are the humans in their (students’) life that are trying their best to be culturally competent on their behalf, and be liaisons with classroom teachers.”

Other EL teachers in the division echo how important it is to advocate for their students in their classrooms.

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan began in April, and English learner teacher Nicole Salzbach sent an email to the general education teachers on behalf of her English learner students at Andrew Lewis Middle School.

“I sent out an email to the teachers letting them know what Ramadan is, that your kids might be hungry, they’re fasting, they might be tired, they’re staying up late,” Salzbach said. “And I have a lot of teachers this year and last year, email me back and say, like, ‘thank you so much. Thank you for that information.’”

During a recent Homework Help Club session in Roanoke County, calming instrumental music played along with scenes from ocean life on the learning board. A sea turtle swam by on the screen. Francisco and two other helpers worked with 13 English learners in the school library at Mount Pleasant Elementary School.

Francisco worked at a table of first-graders learning how to tell time on a clock.

“Done,” said Abigail, one of the students.

“Queen Abigail, you are an amazing leader,” Franciso said to the girl, who wore a pink crown.

They meet twice a week after school during the school year, starting in the fall.

“Psshewww! Pshewwww! Pshewwww!”

One afternoon, during homework club snack time, Francisco battled a first-grader in a light-saber duel. Andy, the little boy, received a miniature light saber from a prize box for completing his assigned reading. Francisco took a light saber of her own and the two played in an open area of the library.

School officials asked that The Roanoke Times not use the last names of these two Homework Help Club students.

“We do something silly every now and then and try to make it fun. Sometimes we’re all just tired, but we all have to work, so we have to try and rev them up a bit at the same time,” Francisco said.

Francisco, who speaks Spanish, has been a teacher for 28 years, including nine years as an EL teacher, 13 as a librarian and six as an instructional assistant.

The need for EL instruction reaches beyond the elementary school level. Roanoke County offers newcomers’ classes at the Burton Center for the Arts and Technology, where middle and high school students are bused from their base school and spend about two-and-a-half hours together every morning or every other morning, depending on their needs.

“The priority is for English acquisition lessons,” Williams said. “What that means is that they do learn social English, just by interacting. But the standards that we use actually focus on academic English. So, those are lessons that are designed to grow their English for language arts, science, social studies and math.”

Williams sees value and opportunity with the district’s growing English learner population.

“You always want to be aware of different demographics,” she said. “Is there a certain increase in population and in a certain demographic in your district that require any different services or outreach?”

She gives an example from a few years ago, when the district changed its cafeteria menu to give students more vegetarian choices, for cultural reasons. They sent menus home to families in languages they could understand.

“Our nutrition department jumped right in and was super willing to do that. It was the result of an ELL teacher noticing, and being in touch with a family,” Williams said.

As 4 p.m. approached on a Tuesday afternoon, Francisco looked for two students she was driving home. Family members and guardians are responsible for picking up children, but often can’t for a variety of reasons that include work. Francisco is happy to help out when needed. She wants to make sure her students don’t miss the opportunity to join the afterschool program.

“They’re just as smart as everybody else,” she said “They are hard workers.”