Celebrating our Students’ Assets and Intentionally Targeting their Needs

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“Merhaba!” “Salaam!  “¡Buenos días!” In my eleven years as a public school principal, greeting my students at the door as they start their school day is one of my greatest joys. It also serves an important purpose – setting a welcoming, warm environment in which each student is known and valued. In serving a range of English learners over the years, I have learned to keep five essential values at the core as I partner with teachers and parents to support our whole student body.

Students who are English learners are English learners all day. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Students who are English learners are English learners all day. (Photo courtesy of the author)

First, bilingualism is a gift and an asset. Helping students maintain their native language is crucial for helping them to develop their identity. We always encourage parents to support their children’s native language development, helping our students engage in complex discourse at home, while celebrating the linguistic assets our students bring to school each day.

Students who are English learners are English learners all day. The goal of identifying the needs of English learners is to allow them to fully access all of the academic offerings in our schools. Therefore, developing students’ speaking, reading, writing, listening, and academic language cannot be the sole responsibility of a language instruction teacher. All teachers need to integrate language development into their instruction and scaffolds that support students English language proficiency, bilingualism, and their application across content areas.

Language immersion programs are marvelous opportunities to both develop students’ native language literacy skills, boost academic achievement, and allow solely English-language speakers to become bilingual. Especially in communities with one dominant common language, such as Spanish, language immersion from the earliest grades can eliminate achievement gaps before they start.

English learner students who are dually- identified with specials needs, as well as those who have yet to be identified, require specific supports. Using culturally relevant assessment tools helps us tease out possible special needs from language development needs. Being proactive, particularly at the elementary level, requires that we are intentional and targeted in the kinds of scaffolds and explicit teaching we do. Using quality ESL data sources to observe trends and patterns to inform school-wide practices is an important administrative responsibility.

Above all, all students must have access all day to rigorous, rich, engaging learning opportunities that leverage their assets and interests. When our students and their families form strong relationships with the educators and know they will be challenged and developed to their fullest potential – regardless of their level of fluency in English – we can foster a path of academic and future success.

My job as a principal is to intentionally create and sustain positive, caring communities in which all my students and their families are welcomed and feel valued. When students feel safe, respected, and included – which is especially important for my English learner students – then we are all able to achieve maximum success.

Dana Nerenberg is principal of Sitton Elementary School in Portland, Oregon and a 2016 Principal Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education.