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Teachers enjoy building English proficiency for children of new residents
Logan Elementary kindergarten teacher Cathy Maloney with current ESL students and their siblings at the annual ESL Community Night held in May. (Submitted photo courtesy of East Allegheny Education Association)
As students eagerly begin their summer vacation, teachers and staff of Logan Elementary School in North Versailles Twp. are reflecting on an unusual school year. Enrollment in an English as a Second Language, or ESL, program tripled during the school year, from eight pupils in 2021-22 to 23 students in 2022-23.
Twelve countries are represented within the Logan community, according to East Allegheny School District. Many of the students are from Spanish-speaking countries but there also is representation from Afghanistan, Ghana, Iran and Latvia.
In one kindergarten classroom, taught by teacher Cathy Maloney, seven out of 23 students were in the ESL program.
“Four out of seven we knew about. The other three came in later,” says Maloney, who offered to take the additional three students who arrived after the school year had begun to help maximize ESL resources.
District officials say that substantially higher numbers of ESL students have also been reported throughout the Mon Valley at McKeesport Area, Steel Valley, Woodland Hills and West Mifflin Area school districts.
Logan Elementary School Principal Joseph DiLucente says there are a number of reasons school districts in Allegheny County are having an ESL boom — a reasonable cost of living, access to public transportation along the Route 30 corridor and the local political and social atmosphere, which leans more toward providing sanctuary for immigrants than exclusion.
COVID-19 border closures temporarily affected ESL population growth in Western Pennsylvania, but “as soon as those borders opened, the numbers got even bigger,” says DiLucente.
Teacher Matt Lorenzo has been with East Allegheny’s ESL program for 10 years. In January, Lorenzo was joined by Susan McKeever, who was hired to help manage the unprecedented case load.
McKeever says there is sometimes a misconception of what ESL means. It is not special-needs education. “We help students gain proficiency in speaking, listening, reading and writing, and all of those areas, through language acquisition — speaking English closer to or on par with a native speaker,” he says.
DiLucente says being proficient in the student’s native language is actually an asset when it comes to learning English. “When a student interprets a new English word they don’t know, their brain automatically goes into language transfer where it scans for a similar word in the language that they already know.”
Lorenzo says part of the ESL mission is to help families embrace their heritage. “You want families to speak the language they are comfortable speaking, hold on to their heritage, be proud of their heritage and encourage them that it is an asset to learn two languages.”
ESL students are fully immersed in English from the moment they walk through the door at Logan. “The kids are learning it [English] in the hallways, they’re learning it at recess, they are learning it in the cafeteria. They are learning it from their classroom teacher,” DiLucente says. “It’s constant, it is in every context, in every walk of their life.”
The ESL teachers also help navigate the language barrier between classroom teachers and families. Justina Castillo has two students in the ESL program, a son, Luismael, at the elementary school, and one daughter, Isabella, at the high school.
Her family is from the Dominican Republic and has been in the United States for almost three years. Castillo says Lorenzo has been a huge support for her family from helping her find a job to helping the kids when they have questions about their homework. “They believe in Mr. Lorenzo and he is always available to help,” she says. “I feel happy about it.”
Maloney says some local customs need some extra explanation, such as a recent flyer advertising tickets for a Kennywood picnic.
“Even though some of the families speak English ... there are some things that are things that are getting lost in translation that I don’t anticipate,” he says.
Maloney, who is retiring after 28 years at East Allegheny, says this international experience has been an amazing way to end her teaching career. It has been a joy for her to witness the appreciation and respect ESL families have for their teachers. She has received correspondence throughout the year from one family always addressed “dear respected teacher.”
“The other thing that is neat to see is a little girl from Mexico holding hands with a little girl from Afghanistan and a little girl from Iran,” she says. “Where else does that happen but in America?”
Kristen Keleschenyi is a freelance writer in North Versailles Twp. and one of the hosts of the Kristen & Amber Show on Tube City Online Radio at 5 p.m. Saturdays, 9 p.m. Mondays and 4 p.m. Thursdays. She may be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published June 16, 2023.