The Henrico Citizen

A new school year can be a challenge for English learners – this Henrico Schools summer program aimed to make it easier

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ESL elementary students posing while building Lego sets. (Liana Hardy/Henrico Citizen)

Elementary school students filled the classrooms of Elizabeth Holladay Elementary school this past July, singing songs in the music room, building with Lego in the library, and playing putt putt using a cardboard course in the gym.

And for the first time, middle and high school students were a few hallways away, watching a video for their government class and studying packets that have lists of English words and phrases.

All rising first grade through rising 12th grade students in the program were English learners. And almost all students had been in the United States for less than a year. Some students had only been in the country for a few months.

“Some may have arrived in November, some might have arrived in March, and some may have actually never been in U.S. school – they arrived in June and this is their first school experience,” the program’s ESL educational specialist, Sarah Modrak, said.

This is the first year Henrico Schools’ ESL Summer Enrichment Program brought elementary and secondary students together in the same building. Modrak said the change has made navigating the program easier for families who are new to the American school system. Older and younger siblings were dropped off at the same building and got to see each other throughout the day.

“Now they’re coming to one place, and I also think it’s great that the older siblings look out for the younger siblings – although sometimes it’s the other way around, ” Modrak said. “I think it’s been very comforting just for the students to be like, ‘Oh yeah, my sibling’s here also.’”

The program takes a hands-on approach to English learning. Extra funding from a federal COVID-19 relief grant allowed HCPS to expand the ESL summer program last year, adding more STEM components, music and art classes, and physical activities for younger students. Students were able to learn content-specific language from different subject areas.

The extra summer help makes a difference when students return back to school, according to Modrak. Students from the summer program often will return to school and move up to more advanced classes.

“From all of our ESL teachers for students who went last summer, they really saw a noticeable difference in the students who maybe arrived at the same time during the school year, but one came to summer school and one didn’t,” Modrak said. “We saw just how far advanced that those students who had come to our summer school became.”

A photo from the “memory book” of an ESL class. (Liana Hardy/Henrico Citizen)

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The beginning of the school year is an adjustment for all students, but it is even more challenging for students still learning English. Introductory quizzes, assessments, and the overall transition to a new school year are difficult for students and families who have just arrived in Henrico. They have to embrace a new school system, a new way of doing things, and a new language.

For many summer ESL teachers, the goal is to prepare their students for those first tests and tasks. One summer ESL teacher who taught the science class brought in microscopes, beakers and goggles to familiarize students with the materials and help them pass their beginning-of-the-year lab safety quizzes.

“One of the hardest things for the kids to do is pass the safety quiz that you have to pass before you can participate in a lab, but now they’ve had exposure to all these things,” ESL secondary teacher Allyn Pritchard said. “And so now they can kind of go in with a little bit of confidence, that knowledge that, ‘Okay, I can get started and I can do this.’”

High school students also had a unique task for their summer government class: create a video welcoming other ESL students and introducing them to the school in both English and their own native language.

Students spoke in Farsi, French, Vietnamese, Spanish and English to show other students how to do things that may seem easy – getting your lunch number, finding the different rooms, addressing your teacher – but that are much more difficult for those just starting to learn English. Modrak said the videos will be shown to ESL students who arrive this school year.

“With our secondary students, it’s a lot of, you know, how do we work in groups, especially when we’re working with students where we don’t have a common culture or common language,” Modrak said.

The program hosted 150 students from all throughout Henrico County this past summer who spoke 19 different languages. It specifically targeted students who had recently arrived in the United States and who had scored the lowest proficiency in English, with the goal to give them a head start for the upcoming school year.

But since the program only lasts five weeks, it can be a challenge for ESL teachers to quickly form relationships and establish trust with their students and also help them form connections with each other.

“We’re literally pulling kids from maybe every school in the district and they’re coming together for just five weeks,” Modrak said. “It’s something teachers are really doing quickly, building their relationships with kids but also between kids. Because you might be in a class with nobody you’ve ever met before, you might be the only one from your school, or maybe you’re the only one who speaks your language.”

The latter can cause a feeling of isolation, according to ESL elementary teacher Deirdre Cox. But being around other English learners who are also newcomers provides a more comfortable environment.

“We have so many different languages represented here, so they were forced to communicate in English to be able to work together,” Cox said. “They have a safe, non-stressful environment to be able to practice those skills.”

Social-emotional learning is woven throughout the program, according to Modrak. For elementary students, who tend to be more adaptable to the new environment, teachers focus on expressing emotions and building connections. With older students, who initially may be more withdrawn, the focus is on cross-cultural connections and forming trust.

“Younger children just naturally go with things more, go with the flow,” Modrak said. “They’re gonna integrate even if they don’t speak the language with other kids pretty quickly. Our high school students, they need a little bit more time.”

Modrak said she saw this with a family of three students in the program, one older student and two younger students, who had never been to an American school before. Although shy at first, the younger students were able to open up after the first week and even helped their older sister feel more comfortable.

“We maybe had one of two other students who spoke their language, and so when they started that very first week, there was very little speaking,” Modrak said. “But the two younger students pretty quickly, even though they didn’t speak the language at all, started interacting with their peers. The older student, it took her a much longer time to start opening up to peers.”

ESL elementary school students playing on a cardboard putt putt course created by ESL secondary students. (Liana Hardy/Henrico Citizen)

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For many older students who are rising 11th or 12th graders and about to graduate in just one or two years, the focus will be on working with school counselors during the school year to figure out “what’s next?”

“Pretty quickly, when students enroll with us in high school, we’re having those conversations of, ‘What is your goal?’” Modrak said.

Most of the students in the program speak Spanish, with Arabic being the second most popular language. In the past year or so, the program has seen more Ukrainian speakers because of the conflict in Ukraine, more Afghan speakers due to conflict in Afghanistan, and recently students from Rwanda and Sudan due to conflict in those countries. It is a reminder that real world conflict can impact even a small community such as Henrico, Modrak said.

And with students emigrating from conflict-stricken areas, ESL teachers – sometimes during the summer but especially during the school year – may work with students carrying emotional trauma, helping those students open up and feel comfortable.

“That definitely comes up all the time, and that’s part of the training we provide our teachers is, ‘How do we help students and mitigate some of that?’” Modrak said. “Part of that can be, too, just giving students the opportunity to share who they are, where they come from, and talking about it.”

Creating an environment where students feel safe, comfortable, and able to express themselves is essential to the program, even though it has to be done in a timeframe of only five weeks.

“And oftentimes students won’t share those things until they feel safe and comfortable, and a lot of that is building that internal safety for our students so they do feel comfortable sharing,” Modrak said.

ESL teachers also worked to make students feel more comfortable in the Henrico community. Pritchard helped organize a community-wide “Emergency Responders Day,” during which secondary students were able to meet firefighters from the Henrico County Division of Fire, officers from Henrico Police, and other first-responders.

Elementary ESL students pause for a photo while building with Legos. (Liana Hardy/Henrico Citizen)

The goal was to introduce students and their families to community services, Pritchard said, especially families who emigrated from areas where police or first responders may not have been as trusted by the community.

“For a lot of our students, emergency services are different things in different places. Some people have emergency services, but it wasn’t something that was considered good or safe and then other people don’t even know what that is,” she said. “It’s just kind of an awareness that these are our community members and these are the people here to keep you and your family safe.”

The event, which also had activities such as soap carving and face-painting, saw a positive reaction from the students, Pritchard said.

“The kids were like, ‘Take my picture! Take my picture!’ I mean, they were loving it,” she said.

As the end of the summer approached, one ESL teacher even made a yearbook or “memory book” for the program with pictures of students from each class to commemorate the five weeks they spent together.

Cox and other ESL teachers hope that the students will not only take better English language skills with them as they return to school, but also new connections with other students across the county, and across different cultures, and a greater feeling of belonging.

“It’s really requiring kids to use their language to grow in their English, but they’re also having a good time and making really cool things and hopefully building some memories along with that,” Cox said.

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Liana Hardy is the Citizen’s Report for America Corps member and education reporter. Her position is dependent upon reader support; make a tax-deductible contribution to the Citizen through RFA here.

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