The USA TODAY Network series Hecho en USA, or Made in America, focuses on the nation’s growing Latino community. Roughly 80% of all Latinos living in the U.S. are American citizens, but media coverage of Hispanics tends to focus on immigration and crime, instead of how Latino families live, work and learn in their hometowns. Hecho en USA tells the stories of the nation’s 59.9 million Latinos – a growing economic and cultural force, many of whom are born in the U.S.
In normal times, teacher Ariana Tabaku helps her students learn English with structured curriculum, face-to-face encouragement and high fives.
None of that is possible during the coronavirus outbreak. So she became a professional fundraiser. An IT specialist. A video producer. And that’s what it took just to get her students — all of whom speak a different language at home — logged in.
During the school closures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, educators are worried about students falling behind. This period of remote learning, technology divides and lowered expectations has stalled progress for almost everyone.
But students who are still learning English — a group that’s swelled to 5 million nationwide, about three-fourths of them Latino — are losing even more ground. For them, that doesn’t just mean a lower GPA or having to attend a less-selective college. It means potentially not graduating or not advancing to a post-secondary education.
It means not mastering a skill critical for upward mobility in America.
This teacher is going the extra mile for her ESOL students during Covid-19 pandemic
Ariana Tabaku is delivering tablets to ESOL students who are unable to access the school’s online learning resources during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
“My students often drop two reading levels during the summer break,” said Tabaku, 27, who teaches at Port Towns Elementary School in Bladensburg, Maryland.
She has no idea how far behind they’ll be once school resumes in some form come fall.
Scrambling for technology
Tabaku had to scramble to help families with the basics of technology before she could even think about teaching.
Port Towns has more than 1,100 students, and about half of them are learning English. Almost all of Tabaku’s students are Latino; a handful are from Africa.
When she learned some of her working parents were missing Chromebook distribution days at school, she raised $1,300 to buy 20 tablets. She set them up with the right apps for each student and drove her Toyota Scion around Prince George’s County on the weekends, dropping them off at their homes.
“One child went to hug me for a tablet,” she said. “I had to tell him I can’t.”
She recently spent 90 minutes on the phone with a father who couldn’t log in. And she enlisted her boyfriend, who is bilingual in Spanish and English, to help make YouTube videos to guide her Spanish-speaking families through using Google Classroom.
Teacher appreciation soars: It only took a coronavirus pandemic
She and her colleagues are up against a confluence of social, academic and financial pressures that make the progress of English learners precarious right now.
Such students are likely to live in low-income households, which means less money for supports in the home, such as tutoring, computers and internet.
They’re likely to come from large families, which means if they have a computer or tablet in the home, they’re more likely to have to share it with siblings. Prince George’s County distributed only one Chromebook per family, Tabaku said.
Emerging bilingual students form a group that’s growing fast – from 3.8 million in 2000 to 5 million in 2016. The share of Latino students in America’s schools is growing even faster from 16% in 2000 to 26% in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Out of the 13.1 million Latino children in public schools, the vast majority speak, read and learn in English in mainstream classrooms.
By definition, the approximately 5 million who are English learners speak a different language at home. And since everybody is spending a lot of time at home right now, many are not conversing in English as frequently.
If they can become proficient, there’s good news: Multilingual students who advance out of English learner status tend to match or outperform their native English-speaking peers academically, new research has shown.
“Learning language is a dynamic process,” said Amaya Garcia, deputy director for English learner education at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
“You need to be able to hear it. You need to speak it back,” she said. “That speaking and listening part is being left out of the equation for students with limited (technological) access.”
New to the country — during coronavirus
Even before the school closures, English learners trailed traditional students academically. For students with limited English skills, 67% graduated from high school after four years in 2016, compared with 84% of all students, according to federal data.
Most emerging bilingual students were born in the U.S. but aren’t proficient in English yet for a variety of reasons: Perhaps they don’t hear enough English at home, or perhaps they’re fluent in multiple languages but can’t quite grasp the academic form of English necessary for school. Some also have special learning needs or disabilities.
A smaller number of students are recent immigrants. Some have fled strife and trauma and been out of school for years before they entered an American classroom.
In Texas, the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio has more than 107,000 students, including about 10,000 English learners.
Since the coronavirus school shutdowns, more than 100 students have joined the district. All are new arrivals from other countries who have never met their teachers in person and have never been in an American classroom. Their first introduction to school in the U.S. has been learning from home.
All of Northside’s communications are in both Spanish and English. Because so many students are immigrants, Northside also translates information into Arabic, Tamil, Vietnamese, Pashto and Telegu.
Bilingual education: More U.S. schools are teaching students in two languages
When the district asked families to fill out an electronic form to receive a computer or a Wi-Fi hotspot, it went a step further with its newcomers who don’t speak English well. Staff members called each family, with an interpreter on the line, to gauge their needs.
They’ve been able to reach about 85% of their English learners, said Victor Raga, who oversees those programs at Northside. Others have moved or change phone numbers or staff otherwise can’t find them.
“For some of our families, this is the first time they’ve ever had their hands on a computer. It’s a novelty, and they don’t understand how it works,” Raga said.
“What they do know is that their kids are supposed to go to and from school every day.”
Working leaves little time for school
Across America, teachers say teens are picking up jobs to support their families during the economic crisis, rather than attending classes.
Latino students especially are pitching in, their teachers say.
“A lot are really adults on their own,” said Matt Clark, an English as a Second Language teacher at Waltham High School in Massachusetts, about 10 miles outside of Boston.
Most of Clark’s students are Latino. In recent years, his school has received more students from Central America who arrived here alone, without their parents.
“They might be living with a 21-year-old cousin and their wife and kids,” Clark said. “There’s a heavy push for them to contribute to their households.”
Recently, one of Clark’s students called into a class session from the construction site where he was working — during his lunch break. Another student called in from his landscaping job.
“Another who works in a local grocery store picked up a ton of extra hours,” Clark added. “She hasn’t attended the virtual class sessions, but she did all the work I posted on Google Classroom. We haven’t gotten formal guidance (from administrators) on how to address that.”
To be accommodating, the school has made student work optional — it doesn’t count for a grade. But engagement dropped precipitously once students discovered that, Clark said.
He worries that if his older teenagers aren’t advancing their English now, they’re even less likely to develop those skills once they’re out of school.
Even for those who stay engaged, the expectations for remote learning are low.
Clark would usually see his students in class for eight hours per week. Now, the expectation is that students study English for about two hours per week.
To complicate matters further, many students are living with several family members. They may struggle to find quiet places to connect.
“Sometimes students are trying to speak, and there’s screaming babies in the background,” Clark said.
English learners on mute
Emerging bilinguals generally start by attending self-contained classes taught by ESL teachers. As they advance, they start to attend regular classes, where mainstream teachers must integrate them into the fold.
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Often, that’s not happening right now.
“It’s almost like the screen makes the students feel more anonymous and isolated,” said Marisa Crabtree, who teaches English development at Lincoln High School in Los Angeles.
About two-thirds of her students are Latino; the other third are Asian.
“Many will just sit there with their audio on mute,” she added. “In a live classroom, they’d be expected to speak English.”
Crabtree said most of her English learners are hard-working students who want to improve. But they find it difficult to practice remotely.
“If you’re not talking to people every day in that language you’re learning, I think it’s hard to stay motivated and practice,” she said.
Garcia, from New America, said districts must better help all teachers support English learners. This fall, they may be teaching face to face – or, depending on coronavirus outbreaks, they may once again teach remotely, at least a few days a week.
When schools reopen:Scheduled days home, more online learning, lots of hand-washing
That makes it even more important for schools to invest in programs that help teachers integrate language learning into their lessons. But money is likely to be in short supply because of declining tax revenue.
The alternative is students may languish.
Martha Elena Cruz lives in Chicago with her four children and her husband, who contracted COVID-19 in April and has been staying home from work to recover.
Remarkably, nobody else in the apartment has tested positive. But Cruz worries that her children are falling behind. Many families she knows aren’t connecting with Chicago Public Schools at all because they don’t understand the technology, she said.
“It’s difficult because you have to have a good internet connection, and we live in a basement, and there is no good signal,” she said in Spanish.
When the internet fails, Cruz said, her children become distracted.
And then their connection to their teacher and their class disappears.
Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @emrichards
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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