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New language program teaches more than just English

Achieve Executive Director Eileen Collins Neri (R) presents a grant to ELL teacher Katie Simpson and Dr. Ramón Robles-Fernández, Supervisor of World Languages and ESL K-12 for the Parent-School ESL Connection.

For a parent in the South Orange-Maplewood School District who was born in the U.S. and grew up speaking English, the thought of attending a parent-teacher conference may not even elicit a second thought. The same may go for attending a district-wide event regarding the college admissions process or a Parent-Teacher Association meeting.

But for parents who don’t speak English, events like these are not easy, says Katie Simpson, who teaches English at Columbia High School to students for whom English is not a first language, also known as English Language Learners (ELL).

There are about 110 such students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, representing 80 families. Most of these families speak Spanish, Portuguese or Haitian-Creole.

By law, the district is required to provide communications to these families in their native language, but Simpson says, she and Dr. Ramón Robles-Fernández, who is the district’s Supervisor of World Languages and ESL K-12, wanted to do more.

“We wanted to provide a resource for learning English for the parents of ELLs in our district, and, at the same time, we wanted to teach parents how to navigate our school district,” Simpson explains.

Robles-Fernández said the idea started as a conversation with Simpson about how best to involve the district’s ELL parents.

A new program that helped non-English-speaking parents learn English and navigate the South Orange-Maplewood School District met in person at Columbia High School before the pandemic. They watched videos and took part in role-playing exercises to prepare for parent-teacher conferences.

“We know that many factors prevent parents from engaging in our schools – work, culture, and language access, among others,” he says. “We wanted to find a way to make access easier and felt that teaching basic skills in English and providing information about how to manage school and support students could be the initial step toward participation.”

Thanks to a $2,874 grant from the Achieve Foundation of South Orange & Maplewood, Simpson and Robles-Fernández have been able to start a remarkable new program: the Parent-School ESL Connection. It’s free and open to any parent in the district who wants to learn English while also learning more about their child’s school district.

“Some parents might be coming from cultures where they really are not used to being very involved with school, whereas, here, and in general in the United States, you’re expected to be heavily involved,” Simpson explains.

“We wanted to level the playing field to help our parents of ELLs to be able to do that for their kids as well.”

When the program was in person, parents met in a CHS classroom decorated with flags from every country.

Eileen Collins Neri, executive director of Achieve, says not too many Achieve grants support families; most grants are targeted at students. But, she says, helping parents better navigate and understand their children’s school is something that has a direct impact on students.

“The children of parents who are more involved in their school tend to have better outcomes,” she says. “This is going to have better outcomes for everyone. Families will be happier; kids will be happier.”

The program started in February 2020, in a classroom of Columbia High School decorated with flags from every country. They held about six weekly meetings, including one where parents watched a video about how to prepare for the upcoming parent-teacher conferences and then split up to role-play discussions they might have with their child’s teacher.

“We had a lively classroom with a range of proficiency levels among our parents,” Simpson says. “I brought in one of the teachers from the elementary school to explain more about the conferences.”

Clinton parent Daniela Chamorro said everything she learned was very helpful.

“The program has been of great help to be able to communicate with other people,” she says, adding that at each class, they learned “new things and put them into practice at home with our children.”

Unfortunately, when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools in mid-March 2020, the program went on hiatus, Simpson said, explaining that the focus at the time was on getting Chromebooks and hot spots to every student who needed them.

After the pandemic hit, the program resumed this past spring with weekly Zoom calls and reached about 8-10 families. It will return in the fall with in-person and online options.

Eventually, though, everyone started to get the hang of the new technology and Simpson said they began discussing how to transition the parent program into an online class, which began in January 2021 with Clinton ELL teacher Antoinette Gelin teaching alongside Simpson.

“At that time, it was really useful because our district was shifting to hybrid,” Simpson says. But even after hybrid school started on January 19, there were hiccups, closures and last-minute schedule changes that made it hard even for English-speaking parents to follow.

“It was a confusing time, so it was really fortunate that we had this weekly forum,” Simpson says, adding that Robles-Fernández would join the class each week to help answer questions.

Being online offered another benefit. Some parents who had been unable to attend the in-person classes due to conflicting work schedules or transportation challenges, suddenly found they could participate.

Jazmin Forigua is one such parent. She and her son Kevin, who will be a senior at CHS, moved to the U.S. from Columbia four years ago, both of them speaking only Spanish.

“Because of my work, I could never attend,” Forigua says, explaining that she liked the online option because it allowed her to take part.

“The course is very complete; the teacher, Katie, is very easy to understand,” she says. “I have learned to translate more easily and to understand when school teachers speak to me.”

The program was so successful – it reached about 8-10 families – that Robles-Fernández and Simpson plan to continue it in the fall, offering both in-person and online options. Simpson wants to invite additional guest speakers, such as a guidance counselor to speak to parents about how to navigate the college admissions process.

Robles-Fernández said the program was given an extension to use the Achieve grant funding this fall, and he plans to search for additional funding sources as well. For example, they were able to tap into state funding earmarked for parent outreach to teach parents how to use PowerSchool, Canvas and other remote learning programs, he said.

“We are hoping to get more families interested and offer different levels of English classes and school-related topics,” he says.

Raylin Rodriguez, a 2021 CHS graduate who moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when he was in eighth grade, doesn’t think drumming up support for the program should be too hard; indeed, he raved about it.

“I found it pretty good that the program doesn’t only help students whose main language isn’t English, it helps their parents, too. That’s great!” he says, adding that he often practices English with his mom.

“This helps her to improve,” he says. “The best part is that it helps parents who are not able to afford [tuition] for an English class. …They should make this [available] in the whole state.”

Malia Rulon Herman is an education writer based in Maplewood. She is very involved in the SOMSD community and can’t imagine navigating it without knowing English; she has great admiration for the non-English-speaking parents who do it every day.


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