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ESL: Continuing Pittsburgh's Welcoming Tradition

As images of desperate families attempting to cross into the United States bring a sobering reality into focus, I’d like to call attention to the connection between this humanitarian crisis and our own classrooms.

Each year, a growing number of children are entering Pittsburgh Public Schools as new arrivals to the United

States. Imagine leaving the only home you have ever known, perhaps now unrecognizable due to war, crime, or natural disaster, and traveling halfway around the world to Pittsburgh — a place you have never seen, even in photos. As intimidating as this might be to an adult, now imagine you are a young child with no English language skills, or a teen who is already navigating the turbulent adolescent years and now has to do so with limited ability to communicate with your new peers.

These are the challenges faced by more PPS students each year. As a District, we take very seriously our role to create a welcoming environment for these students.

When the doors open for the new academic year at one of our 12 schools that serve as ESL centers, more than 1,100 children representing more than 95 languages will enter our buildings. We strive to ensure that each of them feels as though they are part of our PPS family: a place where they are supported and where they can find friends; where we, as educators, invest in their future.

How do we do this? We start when each student walks through the door by greeting them and taking the time to know them as individuals. We pair them with translators when they tour the school, which gives them someone they can depend on when they have questions in the future.

At the District level, we have invested in additional supports. A translation and interpretation manager coordinates a deluge of requests from families, and 13 multilingual educational assistants, many of whom come from other countries themselves, support 35 ESL teachers. These individuals take a personal interest in helping our students and families access the supports they need.

Across our ESL centers, we guide students as they move through the exciting but challenging process of acquiring a new language, and we celebrate their roots with a series of cultural celebrations throughout the year. School staff also work with the rest of the student body to encourage greater awareness and` understanding of global issues. We revisit our efforts through student surveys and by meeting with student groups to gauge how well we’re doing, and where we could improve.

In so doing, we are also benefiting our students who were born in the U.S., making them better global citizens. Together, they and their classmates will gain a diverse student experience that closely mirrors what they can expect in their futures. Our society’s focus is increasingly global; in any job or post-secondary educational experience, the student who is comfortable working with those who speak a different language or hail from a different culture is far more likely to succeed. Increasingly, global competence is becoming a measure of a school district’s performance.

As we look ahead toward the start of the coming school year, I’m pleased that we are beginning to see gains in achievement for students who are new English language speakers from the 2016-17 school year to 2017-18. These include:

  • A jump from 13.1 to 14.5% testing proficient on the mathematics PSSA

  • An increase from 16.5 to 16.8% testing proficient on the PSSA for English language arts/reading

  • A significant bump from 3.8 to 15.5% proficiency in the Keystone Algebra 1 exam

  • An increase from 0 to 11% proficiency in the Keystone Literature exam

Additionally, 56% of English language learners were on track for Pittsburgh Promise eligibility in 2017-18, up from 50.4% the previous year — a hopeful indication of the success that we hope to expand.

Of course, we are never satisfied with the status quo, and we are always looking to build on these early indicators of success. However, it is gratifying to know that our efforts are beginning to bear fruit.

I hope you will join me in welcoming our newest immigrants as they find a foothold in our school community.

Yours in education,

Dr. Anthony Hamlet

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