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You’re Welcome Here: ELL Teachers Offer a Helping Hand to Montpelier’s New Families

In Montpelier schools today, the English Language Learners (ELL) team works with families who arrive here from all over the world. For these teachers, “Don’t make assumptions” is almost a mantra. 

Laura Rooney, Hannah Barden, and Sylvia Fagin make up the team, and their work begins when the families and their children arrive at the school door (sometimes even before). Regardless of their level of English, the students are placed in regular classrooms and supported by members of the ELL team. According to Barden, “We start by making sure the student is comfortable in the room, that they know where the bathroom is, and how to ask for help.” 

Fagin notes “We collaborate with paraprofessionals, teachers, specialists, the nurse, and the office staff. It’s important to know that families from other cultures often have different ideas about their role. American parents expect to be active advocates for their kids, but in other countries, questioning a teacher would be seen as an act of disrespect. On the other hand, American teachers might assume a lack of involvement meant a lack of interest.” 

“Even if a family is speaking English, school language can be confusing. For example, if a teacher tells them, ‘Your child isn’t meeting expectations,’ they may not realize this comment indicates a problem.”

The team also provides logistical support, assisting new families as they work out the best way for a child to get to school, and offering translators when needed. They help the school staff learn more about the language and customs, although Rooney notes, “Since I began this work and despite all the research I’ve done, I’m still surprised by the ways in which kids can arrive here from the exact same place and experiences but often be so different from each other.”

The ELL teachers work with classroom teachers to help students participate in the classroom and progress academically while also supporting their acquisition of English. At the same time, ELL teachers encourage families to value their native language and culture. 

“I’m so astonished by the joy it brings me. [My students] are so open to trying new things.” Fagin said, adding, “I’m sometimes used as a sounding board when parents have questions. If their child is invited for a playdate, they might wonder. ‘Is this okay?’ ‘Is this what is done?’ That kind of interaction makes me feel I’ve gained something. I’ve gained their trust.” 

Montpelier parents may want to help when a student from another country joins their child’s classroom. Barden suggests that you make the same welcoming gestures you would for any new neighbor even if that family has limited English, “Knock on their door. Bring cookies. Smile.” 

Parents can also help their own children to reach out. There are many books, including picture books for younger readers, about the immigrant experience. The team suggests you read them with your child. Talk about what it would feel like to be a newcomer and what they would like a friend to do. Rooney notes that many ELL families lack transportation and would appreciate being offered a ride to a doctor or other destination. She adds that ideas about extracurricular activities or suggestions about summer camps are also valuable.

Montpelier could soon be hosting refugees from the Ukraine. For weeks we’ve watched the images of bombed out buildings and devasted landscapes. Will we find it difficult to comprehend the extent of their experiences? How will the children respond to us living in our relatively safe and untroubled community? The ELL team doesn’t make assumptions, but they’re hopeful. “I think,” says Fagin, “that after the first day, they’ll be running around the playground with everyone else. Kids just want to be kids.” 

Correction: Laura Rooney’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.