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Though she’s been in the United States for three years, 12-year-old Kim recalls what school was like in her native Cambodia.
“It’s really different from here,” she said, still struggling a bit with English.
A student in the English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at Stratford’s Eli Whitney Elementary School, Kim said English is not spoken at home. She must help her mother communicate when they are out together.
“Every time she goes to the store, I translate for her what’s going on,” she said.
Kim is one member of the group of ESOL students at Eli Whitney, students identified as “English Language Learners.” The school was identified as a “Success Story” on ConnCAN’s School Report Cards, for the quality of education provided to students, like Kim, who do not speak English at home.
To be named a “Success Story,” a school must educate a significant population of students within a specific group (students identified as African American, for example, or students, like Kim and her classmates, who speak English as a second language). That group must also perform above the state average.
The group of ESOL students at Eli Whitney is tight-knit, despite the wide range in grade and languages spoken. “Acculturation” is one of the program’s goals, according to Eli Whitney ESOL teacher Maureen Brown, and the ESOL team thinks in terms of “push-in and “pull-out.” ESOL students are “pushed in” to classes with wider student populations, and “pulled out” for small group and individualized instruction.
The goal is to help students feel comfortable in the wider school culture, while providing the individual support they require to succeed academically.
Eli Whitney’s ESOL program focuses on individualized and small group instruction, according to now former principal Carla Armistead, because, as one might imagine, not every student in the program speaks the same language, and not every student speaks and reads English at the same level.
Some students learned a smattering of English in the countries of their birth. Some, according to Brown, “may not be literate in their native language.”
Then there are the sheer number of native languages spoken. Some students speak Spanish, like 5th graders Omar, from Ecuador, and Erick, from Guatemala. Fourth grader Anthony Wang came to this country speaking Chinese. Seventh grader Pierre and his little brother, Aime, came from the Congo speaking Swahili.
“Some of these kids are coming from really war-torn areas,” according to Stratford’s world language and ESOL coordinator, Michael Camporiale, who the kids affectionately call "Mr. Mike." “It has to be multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-level.”
Armistead, who this year has taken over the principal’s office at Stratford’s Chapel Street Elementary School, said there is also a significant focus on educational data.
“The data tells us the lay of the land,” she said. “Data tells us what each kid needs.”
“The children don’t always perceive what their needs are,” Brown said.
They do, however, perceive and express pride in their own academic improvement. Many say they enjoy math and intend to pursue a career in medicine or science. Perhaps understandably, they are often less confident in English language-oriented subjects.
“I used to not read that good,” 4th grader Omar said. “I’m getting better at reading.”
Academic success notwithstanding, the ESOL team at Eli Whitney would make some changes, if they could. Principal Armistead said she manages teachers’ schedules for increased collaboration and small group instruction, but time remains a hot commodity.
“I wish I could extend the day,” she said.
Camporiale and Armistead both said they could use more resources and support.
“We’re stretched thin,” Armistead said, while Camporiale added “more professional development” to the wish list.
The end result for school administrators is creative thinking. The problem, according to Armistead, is how do you get the kids what they need within your school’s limitations.
“You take what you have and maximize that as effectively as possible,” she said.