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Nashua Schools Experience Teacher Shortage For English Language Learners

via flickr creative commons

Nashua schools are struggling with a major shortage of instructors for students for whom English is not their first language. The school district serves nearly 1,300 of these students, but only has 24 ELL, or English Language Learner, teachers.

Among the reasons why there are so many students in need of these teachers is the test used to determine eligibility. Recent changes to the exam have resulted in more students showing a need for specialized ELL instruction. Robert Cioppa is the Director of Student Services and ELL for the Nashua School District. 

(This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Why is there such a strain on staffing this year?

Well, WIDA, the consortium that New Hampshire is a part of, changed the standards for a student to test out of the program as proficient. Traditionally we were testing out about 18 percent to 20 percent of the students. Three years ago they changed the format of the test to online, and a lot of the students weren't quite comfortable with the format. The teachers didn't change the way they were teaching and kids were learning in the same way, it was just the way that they were assessed. And then two years ago they changed those standards. So the first year the standards changed we went from 12 percent to 4 percent. Kids kept coming in and registering, so the program just started ballooning.

So it's a combination of the standards on the tests, they got a little stricter, so fewer students tested out of the program, and also the way the test was administered. What does it mean to be a part of this program? A seven year old, for example, who maybe has never spoken English before, are they working with the teacher ideally all day long?

No, we want them in the mainstream as well. So we try to strike a balance there of meeting their needs linguistically with an ELL teacher and then also we do want them surrounded by the language in the mainstream classroom because there's a lot of good language models in the classroom.

It's very difficult to paint a picture of an English language learner because there are so many different circumstances that they come from. A student that is born in the United States is going to have a very different learning experience than somebody coming from a background where they were literate in their first language. So it's very difficult to just expect to know how long it's going to take somebody to test out of the program because there are just so many different factors that come into play when learning a language. What we're able to provide now is basically half of what would be ideal, in fact less.

In an ideal world, what kind of services would you be able to offer these students?

Well, for elementary school, we do a combination of pull-out which is the student is taken out of the classroom and works with an ELL teacher. What we try to do is reinforce whatever is going on in the mainstream classroom. So the way I always explain this to the teachers is if there's kids in the classroom and they're learning about dogs and you're pulling them out and teaching them about cats, you're not helping. We just want to support what's going on in the classroom.

So there's a combination of that and also some of the ELL teachers are able to push-in the classroom, which means they enter the classroom and work with the ELLs in the mainstream classroom.

Ultimately, is it in some ways a good thing for the standards to have increased slightly to ensure that students don't go it alone before they're ready? 

I don't know exactly why they changed the standards but we're guessing that it had something to do with complaints that kids were being exited from services before they were ready and then maybe not performing as well in the mainstream classrooms. But we here in Nashua, when students got out of the program we didn't notice them performing terribly after getting out of services. I don't know, I really don't know what the rationale was. But you're hoping the rationale was to support kids because that's what we do. 

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