School officials aim to better help non-English speakers
FAIRFIELD — To better serve the district’s growing number of students for whom English is not their first language, Superintendent Toni Jones hopes to establish “newcomer academies” as soon as next year.
The idea would be to assist English-language learners, students who are learning the English language in addition to their native language, at the elementary, middle and secondary levels.
The plan for the academies came up at the Jan. 9 meeting of the Board of Education, when Jones first presented her proposed $173,956,991 budget. More details emerged on Tuesday, as the school board began its process of reviewing the document line by line.
“We have growing and diverse needs of English-language learners in the district,” said Michael Cummings, the schools’ chief academic officer and Jones’ second-in-command. “Given the size of the district and the number of learners across the sites, we struggle to provide a high level of services to some of the students in buildings with smaller populations.”
According to Cummings, there are 230 ELL students in the district.
As an example, he singled out Dwight School, which has one of the lowest elementary school enrollments in the district at 314 students. Two Russian-speaking students enrolled at Dwight in September. They were essentially the only two ELL students at the school, Cummings said.
“It was difficult to provide them the highest level of service, given the staffing issues we have across the district,” Cummings said.
The idea would be to concentrate the district’s highest-need ELL students (referred to as level one or two) at one of three locations — one for elementary, one for middle and the last for high school students — for a short time in small classes of no larger than 15 students at each location, or around 45 total.
To staff the academies, three existing ELL-certified teachers would be relocated, each to head one of the newcomer academies. The number of ELL-certified teachers in the district would remain flat, but the superintendent’s budget asks to hire three full-time paraprofessionals to assist in the schools from which the ELL-certified teachers were pulled. The budget calls for a total increase in paraprofessional staff of $203,131 districtwide.
Definitive locations have not been set, and Cummings said they will depend on available space and proximity to existing ELL populations.
“Do we have far more elementary ELL students than high schoolers? And if that’s the case, if it’s not kind of a smooth distribution, how is that going to work?” board member Jeff Peterson asked.
According to Cummings, there are more ELL students entering the district at the elementary level. For that reason, both McKinley and Holland Hill are being considered for the elementary site. Tomlinson and Warde are likely for the middle and second-level academies, all depending on available space.
Students would cycle in and out throughout the year, with the idea that they would advance out of the newcomer academy and return to their respective home schools. Cycling also allows for a greater percentage of the district’s ELL program to benefit from the academies.
“The idea of this program is to be as short-term as possible,” Cummings said.
The Board of Education is expected to vote to adopt the budget on Jan. 25, at which point it will move to the town for final approval.