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Many new students in MASD, including those fleeing Hurricane Maria, have language needs

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 12/20/17

An influx of new students from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria has Middletown Area School District adding more staff to support its English as a Second Language program.

The school …

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Many new students in MASD, including those fleeing Hurricane Maria, have language needs

Middletown Area School District English Language Development teacher Ashley Sabitsky works with second-grade student Luis Alvarado Torres at Fink Elementary School on Dec. 15.
Middletown Area School District English Language Development teacher Ashley Sabitsky works with second-grade student Luis Alvarado Torres at Fink Elementary School on Dec. 15.
Submitted photo
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An influx of new students from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria has Middletown Area School District adding more staff to support its English as a Second Language program.

The school board during its Dec. 12 meeting backed a request from the district to hire an instructional aide to assist the district’s ESL teachers.

Four new students from Puerto Rico have enrolled at Fink Elementary since Hurricane Maria, which made landfall on Sept. 20 and is regarded as the worst natural disaster on record in Puerto Rico.

While the new students from Puerto Rico are driving the increase, they are just part of a significant jump in the enrollment of non-English speaking students that Fink is experiencing.

Fink had nine ESL students enrolled at the start of this school year. Since September the number has more than doubled, to 22, said Christine E. Mostoller, the school district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Middletown is just one of several area school districts being impacted by students from Puerto Rico coming here following the hurricane.

Close to 200 new students have come to Harrisburg School District, according to PennLive. The number also includes students from Florida who have been displaced by hurricanes, PennLive said.

In Middletown, the new ESL students since the start of this school year have also come “from many areas of the world for various reasons” besides those from Puerto Rico, Mostoller told the Press & Journal in an email.

The degree to which these students can speak English varies broadly, Mostoller noted.

The range of competency depends upon how long the students have been in the United States, “the type of formalized schooling they received prior to their arrival in the United States, and the amount of English the student is exposed to in the home.”

“Many of these students speak multiple languages, which is why the terminology used by the Department of Education has recently changed from English as a Second Language to English Language Development,” Mostoller added. “For many of these students, English may be a third or fourth language.”

The challenge of educating these students falls on the district’s own resources. The school district is using budgetary reserve funds to cover the new instructional aide, since the position was not anticipated in the 2017-18 budget.

In addition to language proficiency, “we are also concerned with the social and emotional component of the adjustment for these families, as well as ensuring that we are able to communicate effectively with them in their native language,” Mostoller said.

“We work closely with district social workers, outside organizations in the community, translation services, and government resource organizations to ensure that the families are being supported in every way possible,” she said.

That support doesn’t end with the conclusion of the school day. Plans are underway to welcome the new Puerto Rican students to the growing after-school program at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Middletown, said Ellen Willenbecher of St. Peter’s.

The church is working with the Caribbean Students Association at Penn State Harrisburg to provide Spanish-speaking tutors who can assist the new Puerto Rican students in the after-school program.

Willenbecher said the program expects to be ready to begin serving the new students by January. The church is also working with the school district, to coordinate the instruction in the classroom with the tutoring that occurs in the afterschool program, she added.

The growth in non-English fluent students in the school district did not start with the arrival of the new students from Puerto Rico.

In 2012-13, the district had 40 students receiving English Language Support Services, Mostoller said. By 2013-14 the number was up to 54 and 62 by 2014-15. The number had remained steady until the new surge that the school district has been experiencing with the 2017-18 school year.

These students are in all district grades from kindergarten through 12. The district has seen increases at all levels, but the biggest increases are impacting the district’s three elementaries — Fink, Kunkel and Reid.

The numbers alone don’t tell the whole story, Mostoller added.

“If we have 10 new students enroll who have a high degree of proficiency, we are able to meet their needs with our current resources,” she said. “If we have 10 children who are non-speakers enroll, additional demands are placed on our resources in order to be sure we are providing adequate support for these students. The trend we have seen is that our overall numbers have nearly doubled over the past five years, but more importantly, the degree of need demonstrated by the students has increased.”

Besides new students impacted by natural disaster, such as the students from Puerto Rico, Middletown has also enrolled new students from around the world who have come here as a result of war in their native country.

Be it a hurricane or armed conflict, these students have typically experienced trauma that affects their ability to learn in the classroom.

“Families are separated, possessions and friends are left behind, and children are placed into a totally unfamiliar culture,” Mostoller said. “We do our best to provide as much comfort, support and assistance as possible in these situations while ensuring that they are making academic and social progress.”

The influx of new students from foreign nations to the Middletown area was a driving force behind St. Peter’s launching its after-school program, now in its fourth year.

Seven years ago St. Peter’s got involved in sponsoring political refugees from Burma, Willenbecher said.

“It started small as a tutoring program for them and it just grew,” she said of the after-school program.

The program serves all students in need regardless of where they come from. Come January the St. Peter’s program will have 60 students — not counting the new ones from Puerto Rico, Willenbecher said.