When Katya Kats arrived in the U.S. from the Ukraine years ago, she was terrified of interacting with educators at her daughter's school. "I taught English and French in the Ukraine, but I still had no idea what the papers she brought home from school meant," said Kats, an English as a New Language teacher at Cohoes Middle School near Albany.
Those memories help the Cohoes Teachers Association member relate to parents, and led her to write about her experiences for Educator's Voice, NYSUT's journal of best practices in education.
"I got the idea after seeing an ELL student in tears because his friends were playing soccer, but he wasn't," she said. The student's mother had thrown away his permission slip because she didn't understand it.
Kats (with help) translated forms for parents into multiple languages. She shared her experiences at the first annual English Language Learners/Multilingual Learners Literacy Conference at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany. More than 500 educators and administrators attended the daylong event, which offered theoretical and practical classroom strategies.
"Ours is a profession of hope — we don't see obstacles, just how to reach our goals," said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. She thanked educators for being "dream makers and dream keepers" for their students. "We need to remind ourselves that we are warriors ... every one of you is a warrior and advocate for our English language learners."
Other speakers included Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, Regent Luis Reyes and State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia.
Days after the conference, Elia told lawmakers on the state Assembly Education Committee that more than 245,000 of the state's 2.6 million public school students are ELLs. That's nearly 9 percent.
Recognizing the growing need, the Board of Regents adopted "Part 154" regulations that require districts to provide more comprehensive services to ELL students and their families. NYSUT supports the regulations and is calling on the state to provide additional resources for implementation.
"The vast majority of ELL students reside in low-wealth/high-need school districts that lack the local capacity to raise significant additional dollars to properly implement these regulations even before the restrictions of the tax cap are taken into account," NYSUT's Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta testified before the Assembly hearing.
While the state's Foundation Aid formula provides enhanced funding for districts accommodating ELLs, Foundation Aid hasn't been fully funded for years. Districts are owed $3.8 billion in Foundation Aid this year, and much of those funds are owed to districts with large ELL populations.
"The districts with the greatest need are not getting the resources necessary to meet the requirements of Part 154," Pallotta said.
NYSUT has called on the state to phase in full funding of Foundation Aid, and to create a new state aid category funded with at least $200 million specifically to provide increased support to its growing number of ELLs until the phase-in is complete.
The union strongly supports Part 154's required professional development for educators to engage families of ELLs as partners and collaborators.
"NYSUT's Education & Learning Trust and the state's teacher center network are working with districts to provide educators with this important professional development," NYSUT's Fortino told lawmakers. "This is how districts are meeting that Part 154 requirement." Notwithstanding the Legislature's efforts to restore teacher center funding, a robust increase of funding is necessary to meet the needs of these ELL programs, she said.
United Federation of Teachers Vice President of Education Evelyn DeJesus, an ELL herself, told lawmakers the union welcomes the opportunity to work with the Legislature to ensure the growing number of ELLs in our schools succeed. DeJesus, a member of the NYSUT Board of Directors, urged lawmakers to look beyond politics and bureaucracy and focus on improving services for students.
The inaugural ELL conference went a long way toward meeting that charge. The event featured a full slate of workshops on topics from preschool multilingual learning, to literacy development for ELLs and engaging ELLs in subject area instruction. A keynote address by Aida Walqui, author of English Language Learners and the New Standards, focused on realizing the potential of ELL students.
Academic learning strategies, such as differentiating instruction and teaching academic vocabulary, was the focus of another NYSUT-led workshop. English as a New Language teacher Derek Zimmerman, Hyde Park TA, uses a combination of drawing and writing with his kindergarten and first-graders.
"I have students first draw what they want to say and then use the drawing, as a visual marker, to help them write," he said, explaining that the technique helps them focus their thoughts.
Other useful strategies include using color cards to help students visually demonstrate their level of understanding, and to define all words.
"You can't assume that ELL students have the knowledge of basic vocabulary that mainstream students have," said ENL teacher Anna Fichera, Poughkeepsie Public School TA.
To help students adjust outside the classroom, suggestions included using picture cards to facilitate ordering food in the cafeteria, pairing ELL students with a buddy to help them navigate the school day and developing a welcome video that conveys basic school information.
"A big part of working with ELL students is easing transitions and helping them build social connections," said ENL teacher Natalia Carusone, Saratoga Springs TA.
Mount Vernon Federation of Teachers members Ninozca Herrera and Solivette DaCunha, both bilingual educators, were surprised to see how widespread the ELL population has become. "People are moving everywhere today, beyond the cities and even into rural communities," said Herrera.
NYSUT co-sponsored the free event, which was organized by SED's Office of Bilingual Education and World Languages. Other sponsors included the Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network and Questar III BOCES.
Cohoes TA's Katya Kats is one of 11 authors featured in Educator's Voice Volume IX: English Language Learners: A Mosaic of Languages and Cultures. For more information, visit www.nysut.org/educatorsvoice.