By Claire Walla
English as a Second Language (ESL) learners at Pierson Middle/High School are typically not at the top of their class.
According to statistics presented at the most recent school board meeting, Monday, June 2, ESL students typically underperform on Regents Exams, often failing altogether.
Of nine ESL students who took the Regents Exam in Global History last June, only two received a score of 60 or above, the highest grade being 66. Of the nine students who took the Regents Exam in Algebra only three scored 60 or above. The numbers fluctuate over the years, but — on the whole — they remain low.
“This is our riskiest population,” said Dr. John Gratto, the Sag Harbor School District’s superintendent.
But according to Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols, this is not really a surprise.
In some cases, he explained, ESL students come from countries where the education systems are on par with the United States. However, particularly in recent years, Nichols said many ESL students come to Pierson well behind their peers, academically.
“What we have now are a lot of students with interrupted formal education,” he continued. “Not only is there a language deficit, there are preparation issues.”
For this reason — and in light of dwindling test scores — he has proposed hiring a new ESL teacher and adopting a new model of education geared toward helping the ESL population achieve success.
According to the district’s director of pupil personnel services, Dr. Lisa Scheffer, the ESL population district-wide has hovered between 50 and 60 in the last three years. About one third of the entire population is at Pierson, she added.
The plan is to create a class based on an education model called Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP). The model focuses on eight inter-related components: lesson preparation, building background, comprehensible input, strategies, interaction, practice/application, lesson delivery and review/assessment.
Nichols said the idea at Pierson, starting in the fall, would be to hire one new bilingual teacher who either has ESL certification or is pursuing certification. While most candidates would likely have expertise in one content area, Nichols said that instructor would have to be able to teach the five content areas covered by Regents Exams: Living Environment, Algebra, Global History, U.S. History and English. There would also be an academic support period.
The newly hired teacher would work with Fausto Hinojosa, a teaching assistant who currently works with the ESL population at Pierson.
“It all situations, a key piece [to academic success] is to establish a strong connection between home and school,” Nichols said. “This is more difficult in core content classes, where teachers have [roughly] 100 students… it’s difficult to establish the kind of relationship required for these students to be successful.”
The SIOP model would allow instructors to work with ESL students more closely, giving them the ability to better follow through with homework and assignments, more clearly explain instruction, translate information (if need be), and establish stronger relationships between the school and the families of ESL students.
Nichols said he and Hinojosa have already identified 36 ESL students at the high school who could benefit from the SIOP model, however not all 36 need help in each of the five core content areas. The students would take part in a SIOP class on an at-need basis.
In total, Nichols added that he imagines each class would be anywhere from eight to 17 students. He added that ESL students at the high school range in age from 15 to 21, and it’s likely SIOP classes would see a range of ages for each subject.
“Is this a perfect solution?” Nichols asked rhetorically. “No. But, for what we’re faced with, is it a viable solution? Yes.”
“We have to do something,” School Board President Mary Anne Miller agreed. “We’ve tried a lot of different initiatives, but we’re not getting these students to where we want them to be.”
Nichols added that the new position would be paid for with reserves that have been set aside for special education.
“The goal is not just to get them to graduate,” Nichols continued. “But to get [ESL students] to be number two or three in their class. We have to continue to reach for that.”