For a decade, the Linden Public Schools program for teaching English as a Second Language has been held up by the state as a model for other districts. Linden would like to keep that strong record going.
On Monday, March 12, the district hosted two representatives of the New Jersey Department of Education who came to review Linden’s ESL program. The district is applying to continue as a model ESL district for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years.
So what does that entail?
“It’s an honor, and it comes with the responsibility to help other districts,” said Kevin LaMastra, Linden’s supervisor of ESL/bilingual/world languages. “They’ll send other districts who could use advice about their ESL program or help to get it off the ground. We’re giving back to the larger community, to the state. We welcome administrators and teachers from other districts to observe our classes and to answer their questions on how to administer an ESL program. We model what the state deems best practices in supporting English-language learners and their families.”
Currently, Linden is one of five model districts in the state’s ESL/bilingual model program, and the only one held up as a model K-12 district for ESL.
About 1,400 students of all grade levels in Linden speak a primary language at home other than English, chief among them being Spanish, Polish and Haitian Creole, as well as more than 30 others. With numbers like that, LaMastra said, Linden has no choice but to be a model district if students are to succeed academically.
“The administration here – whether it’s Dr. Robertozzi, Mrs. Cleary, the supervisors – the district puts students with special needs first,” LaMastra said. “Some might see them as an afterthought because they’re a relatively small population, but they really put them first. It is not just the ESL teacher who is looking out for these students; here everyone collaborates and takes responsibility.”
Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi said that the district’s great support for the ESL program is consistent with its commitment to embrace Linden’s diversity.
“Part of our motto is ‘Respect for Diversity’ and that is great. But supporting the hundreds of students in our ESL program so that they can thrive in the classroom and in life – that’s putting our motto into action,” Robertozzi said. “We wear our designation as a model ESL district as a badge of honor that tells the community that every child and every family matters in Linden Public Schools.”
That was evident in the team approach given to the March 12 presentation to Kenneth Bond, program development coordinator for the Department of Education, and Joanna Santana, comprehensive support and intervention English-language-learner specialist for the DOE. LaMastra spoke about the program’s successes, and was followed up by presentations from ESL teachers Anna Zolotucha-Skiba of Linden High School, Faten Sumrein of McManus Middle School, and Mercedes Fernandez of School No. 2, as well as LHS students who came through the program and spoke with passion about how it contributed to their successes in high school.
But the backing in the room did not end there. Lending their support were Robertozzi, Assistant Superintendent Denise Cleary, Supervisor of Language Arts Patricia Tartivita, Supervisor of Social Studies Gregory Grasso, Supervisor of Fine and Performing Arts and Gifted and Talented Matthew Lorenzetti, Director of Human Resources Michele Dorney, Director of Technology Michael Walters, and Supervisor of Data and Assessment Dariusz Kondratowicz – who is himself a graduate of Linden’s ESL program.
“All the way from pre-K on up, the district provides professional development for teachers and we get the message out, and we support one another and everybody is working together,” LaMastra said. “It’s that collaboration, where those students are everybody’s responsibility, and we’re all contributing something that makes our program special.”
The support throughout the district makes it easier for ESL teachers to help their students. But Linden also seeks out a special kind of teacher who goes beyond the classroom.
“It’s easy to find competent teachers who know how to teach ESL,” LaMastra said. “But in our district, what we have are teachers who make an impact on the students’ lives. They’re doing something to support the students, their families, the community. It goes beyond the classroom. The teachers are advocating for the students.”
Sometimes that means lobbying for the students as they exit the ESL program and move into rigorous courses of study in high school.
“Those teachers are making sure a student is going to go into an honors class or an International Baccalaureate class if it’s the right move for them,” LaMastra said. “People might think because they were in ESL it might be a jump to go from ESL to IB.”
“These teachers are not just concerned with the students’ success in their class; they are looking out for them on a wider scale. They are helping to integrate the students into the wider school culture and making sure they have access to the best curriculum they can handle.”
But not every success story means going into IB or honors classes. A lot of Linden’s ESL students come in without a lot of formal education in their home country.
“There’s actually a lot to be proud of in just helping kids get caught up,” LaMastra said. “Some didn’t even have an educational foundation when they got to us – kids who were adolescents and didn’t know how to hold a pencil or a pen.
“Those stories are success stories, too. Helping these students to acquire literacy, graduate, and then go on to work or college – that’s certainly a great achievement for these students.”