Four Pawtucket teachers graduate from rigorous ESL program

Four Pawtucket teachers graduate from rigorous ESL program

Four Pawtucket teachers graduated from Brown University on May 26 with master’s degrees in ESL and cross-cultural studies, and received English as a Second Language certificates from the Rhode Island Department of Education. The teachers, from left, are Renee Haggerty, who will start a new position in the fall as the facilitator of teaching and learning at Goff Middle School; Kristen Nichols, a 4th-grade teacher at Curvin-McCabe Elementary School; Marie Arbelaez, a 5th-grade teacher at Agnes Little Elementary School; and Emily McKenna, a 5th-grade teacher at Cunningham Elementary School.

PAWTUCKET – After completing a 2 1/2-year graduate program while continuing to teach full-time for Pawtucket schools, four teachers are ready to share their newfound knowledge on how to improve education for English language learners with others across the district.

On May 26, Kristen Nichols, Marie Arbelaez, Emily McKenna, and Renee Haggerty all received master’s degrees in ESL and cross-cultural studies from Brown University as well as English as a Second Language certificates from the Rhode Island Department of Education.

“Being in the school system for 20 years and seeing the demographics change, I wanted to increase my knowledge and professional development around English language learners … to be a better teacher and be better for my students,” Nichols, a 4th-grade teacher at Curvin-McCabe Elementary School, told The Breeze.

“I feel like I’m actually a better person,” said Arbelaez, a 5th-grade teacher at Agnes Little Elementary School who’s taught in the district for 11 years. “I view people differently.”

With 1,300 English learners in the district, “we need highly qualified, certified teachers to address the needs of these students who are coming to us,” Patti DiCenso, who retired from her role as superintendent on June 30, told The Breeze.

It’s not just about getting the students to speak English but also to learn the content, she said.

The master’s program, called Project Engage, is a national professional development program providing full tuition for K-5 teachers from Central Falls, East Providence, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket.

The goal is “to increase the capacity of Rhode Island’s elementary teachers to deliver high quality instruction to elementary level English learners in high incidence districts,” according to the university’s website.

When DiCenso first became superintendent five years ago, there wasn’t enough support for English learners in neighborhood schools, she said. Families were sometimes split up as students were bused to different schools.

“We made a commitment that we need to have more ESL certification,” she said, “and those with ESL certifications need to use them.”

In the past four years, the district has doubled the number of teachers who have ESL certification, “which is critical to the community we have,” DiCenso said.

In 2013, she said, 61 teachers were ESL certified compared to 112 in 2018, out of 551 total classroom teachers.

“Initially it was about keeping families together,” DiCenso said, adding that it also gives teachers skills to understand English learners’ needs in a regular classroom.

The teachers said their program at Brown taught them different ways of thinking about English learners as well as specific research-based strategies to use in their classrooms, including exposing English learners to rich, academic vocabulary and using their native languages as an asset to learning.

Cheryl McWilliams, interim superintendent, said that English learners aren’t “coming to the table with things we need to overcome” but instead their skills and experiences are beneficial.

Nichols said that it was the best professional development she’s ever received.

“It’s applicable to my classroom day in and day out,” she said. “I do believe we’re better educators in the fact that we now see the dynamics between school, child, and family.”

In addition to students’ native languages, teachers should also consider differences in child rearing practices, and expectations of the relationship between school and family, said McKenna, a 5th-grade teacher at Cunningham Elementary School.

The district wants to hear what parents have to say “no matter what language they speak,” Arbelaez said, and students should feel comfortable being their selves in the classroom.

The program also opened the teachers’ eyes to cultural biases that exist and how to be more inclusive in the classroom and throughout the district, they said.

“There is racism, prejudice, and bias built into our systems and within ourselves to varying degrees,” McKenna said. “These need to be uncovered, exposed and rectified at all levels of the education system” from individual teachers to school policies to required reading.

Haggerty, who most recently worked as a 4th-grade teacher at Winters Elementary School and will start a new position in the fall as the facilitator of teaching and learning at Goff Middle School, said being in the program was also beneficial for her students who got to see that adults still learn.

“Some of my students were some of my biggest cheerleaders,” she said.

The four educators started the program in January 2017 and said they completed 180 hours of work per class on top of working full-time. There were 10 students total in the program.

They are the third group from Pawtucket to graduate from the program and the first group of all elementary teachers, DiCenso said. Four teachers graduated in 2018 and five in 2017.

“It is a very rigorous program,” DiCenso said. “It’s a lot of work for them to work full-time and do this.”

Other teachers have received ESL certification through different programs including some online, DiCenso said.

In addition to one program that provides intensive support to ESL students, Pawtucket also offers a dual-language program at Nathanael Greene Elementary School in which Spanish speaking and English speaking students are taught for half the day in Spanish and half the day in English.

“It takes away stigma for ELL students,” DiCenso said. “It’s an interesting model.”