Keeping English Alive Is Key for New Learners

Program for district’s youngest focuses on literacy and math
Kylie Tekulsky, a bilingual teacher with the East Hampton School District, used a strategy called total physical response to reinforce vocabulary for 5 and 6-year-old English language learners. Morgan McGivern

Air-conditioners whirred early Tuesday morning as two rows of 5 and 6-year-olds sat cross-legged on the floor of an East Hampton High School classroom, excitedly working on a lesson that builds science vocabulary.

“I say the word and you repeat it after me,” said Kylie Tekulsky, their teacher, using a smart board at the front of the room.

“Direction,” said Ms. Tekulsky, pointing to a yellow traffic sign, as the 16 students jointly read aloud: “The place toward which something is moving or facing.”

Once prompted, tiny fingers pointed in rapid-fire succession — toward the window, the door, the ceiling, and the floor. The class next tackled distance, friction, mass, and speed (with accompanying hand signals) before moving onto small-group work.

Ms. Tekulsky, a bilingual teacher, was using a strategy called total physical response. “It’s when you attach language to a movement and the language is internalized because of it,” explained Elizabeth Reveiz, who directs the district’s English as a second language and bilingual programs.

“These kids could go the whole summer without hearing English,” said Ms. Reveiz, explaining that for many of the children, Spanish is the only language spoken at home. “Academic success means as much exposure to English as possible.”

For five weeks this summer, 40 of the district’s youngest students are receiving extra help with literacy and math. All are English language learners, whose proficiency levels range from beginner to intermediate. From 8:30 to 11:15 a.m. each morning, two classes, comprising kindergarten through second-grade students, are conducted entirely in English. The aim is to increase fluency while also thwarting the dreaded “summer slide” — or the regression of academic skills during the long break.

Though many of their peers have yet to crack open a book, such leisure time can carry a heavy price tag. On average, students return to school in September a month behind where they had performed earlier in the year, according to a report issued by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research group. Such learning loss is a particular worry for many low-income students, who can lag behind their more affluent peers.

For instance, while children from higher income brackets tend to make academic gains over the summer, whether reading at home or participating in a camp, low-income children are far less likely to have access to such opportunities. Locally, some exclusive camps pose a further hindrance with day rates running north of $300, an impossible sum for working families scrambling to make seasonal income.

Transportation, particularly during the busy summer months, poses an additional hurdle. Earlier this spring, when parents expressed difficulty in making the 11:15 a.m. pickup, the district looked into providing buses home. It now provides busing home for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, though parents must drop them off.

Last year, the summer program enrolled only 10 students. But this year, with the help of Ana Nuñez, the district’s community liaison, that number has quadrupled. As the demand continues to rise, with English language learners concentrated in the lower grades, next summer will likely see the addition of a third class.

Since hiring Ms. Nuñez nearly three years ago, the aim has been one of increased communication, particularly in a district where the population of students from Spanish-speaking homes continues to rise.

Though Latinos make up 43 percent of the student population of 1,800, John M. Marshall Elementary School is 51 percent Latino, according to the most recent New York State Report Card. Districtwide, English language learners make up 13 percent of the total population, with younger students typically testing out of that group during the first three years of elementary school.

Once English is well established, Ms. Reveiz and Ms. Nuñez both emphasize the richness in speaking two (or more) languages. “Being bilingual is key,” said Ms. Reveiz. “You don’t want to lose that, either. We promote speaking more than one language in the home. It just makes kids more marketable in a global economy.”

During a series of workshops planned for the coming year, administrators hope to provide more opportunities for parent engagement, with regular parent meetings conducted entirely in Spanish. “In our countries, schools are the providers of the education,” explained Ms. Reveiz, who emigrated from Colombia at the age of 6. Ms. Nuñez, a graduate of East Hampton High School, arrived from Ecuador at the age of 9. “We’re trying to explain this shift, so that families see themselves as the first teacher.”

For the incoming kindergarten class, for instance, Ms. Nuñez emphasizes that all families teach basic skills — from showing children how to put their coats on to gripping a pencil to learning colors, numbers, and letters.

Back in the classroom on Tuesday, high school desks were stacked at the back of the room, with smaller desks brought over from John Marshall for the five weeks of summer school. Still, some of their feet dangled in mid-air, unable to reach the ground.

“Every student loses a little bit of what they learned this year, but especially them, because they’re just learning English,” said Ms. Tekulsky. “The only way to learn these things is by repeating them over and over again.”

In Alexandra McCourt’s classroom next door, the children are slightly older, ranging from first to second grade. During a science lesson, a group of girls, all in neon colors, jointly read aloud from a reading passage about gravity and motion, their fingers carefully following along with each word.

Though Ms. McCourt, a teacher with nearly 20 years of experience who speaks “fairly proficient Spanish,” doesn’t assign homework during summer school, she does send them home with mini-books, a strategy that gets students reading and promotes family literacy.

With 15 minutes until dismissal and not a minute to waste, students opened their math notebooks, where they practiced counting by 2s, 5s, and 10s.

Ms. McCourt, who is in her second year of teaching summer school, sees great value, particularly come September, when many students struggle to regain their academic foothold.

“We’ve seen that it makes a difference between the kids last year who did vocabulary and writing all summer long compared to the kids who did nothing,” said Ms. McCourt. “All that review and practice helps build up their stamina. They’re keeping up their routines. I see a difference in that first week back.”