Naugatuck schools see increase in ELL students

NAUGATUCK — The number of borough students who need help with speaking English has risen significantly over the past few years.

In 2014, there were 155 English-language learner students in the Naugatuck school system. The number of English-language learner students increased to 251 in 2017, a nearly 62-percent jump over the four years.

During the same time, the overall student population dropped by about 1.7 percent to 4,281.

English-language learner students now make up approximately 5.6 percent of the students in Naugatuck.

According to the Connecticut state statutes, English-language learner students are students whose dominant language is not English and whose proficiency in English is not sufficient to assure equal educational opportunity in a regular school program.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Christopher Montini said this doesn’t mean that the students do not speak any English, but rather they don’t speak English at the same level as their peers.

Naugatuck schools are not an outlier when it comes to increasing numbers of English-language learner students.

Connecticut Department of Education Director of Communications Peter Yazbak said that state is experiencing similar trends as Naugatuck.

Over the past six years, the state has seen a 21.4 percent increase in English-language learner students, bringing the total to 36,788, according to Yazbak. English-language learner students make up 6.8 percent of the total student population across the state.

During the same time period, the overall student population in the state has decreased 3.5 percent, bringing the total number of students to 538,893.

The influx of English-language learner students can be attributed in part to the destruction in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria in September.

Yazbak said as of Jan. 12 there were 1,972 students who were displaced by Hurricane Maria that moved into the Connecticut school system. Of those students, about 80 percent were categorized as English-language learners, he said.

Montini said 12 students from Puerto Rico entered Naugatuck schools following the hurricane.

Montini said other factors led to the increase, including a change in the state’s criteria of what qualifies a student as an English-language learner.

Previously, English-language learner students were given 30 months of time in a bilingual setting before being transitioned full time into a classes with their English-speaking peers. Now, English-language learner students can extend the time in a bilingual setting by an additional 30 months if they do not meet the standards after the first 30 months.

Once a child has been identified as an English-language learner, school officials determine how much help that child will need and set out a plan, Montini said.

Due to the increase in English-language learner students, Yazbak said school districts across the state have reported that they have needed to hire additional staff to accommodate the students. This includes hiring teachers licensed to teach English-language learners, he said.

Naugatuck is one of those districts.

The Board of Education this month approved creating a new full-time English-language learner teacher position.

The district has full-time English-language learner teachers at Hop Brook Elementary School and Naugatuck High School, and a part-time teacher splits times between Salem and Andrew Avenue elementary schools. The new position brings the number of full-time English-language learner teachers to 3.6.

In addition to English-language learner teachers, every school except Naugatuck High School has reading consultants that help all students, Montini said.

The salary for the new teaching position will be covered by a federal grant, Montini said.

“I would typically be bringing this to you as part of the budget, but the students are here now,” Montini told the board.

Officials will place the new teacher where the greatest need is, Montini said.

Montini said the increase in the English-language learner population has had a positive impact on borough schools.

“The impact is positive because we live in a diverse world with people of all cultures races and backgrounds. It is reflective of the world the students experience,” Montini said. “Do I think anything is taken away? No, absolutely not. Every learner is unique and has gifts, strengths, weaknesses. We approach all of our learners that way.”