Einstein’s campuses have among the highest English Learner enrollment in the city. (G. Murray) Credit: Gwendolyn Murray

As schools navigate a year unlike any other, they must work like always to adapt to the unique needs of their students. In some New Orleans schools, that includes large numbers of students who aren’t proficient in English and, like their peers, will be learning through computer screens.

About seven percent of New Orleans students have limited English proficiency, according to state data. But at a handful of city schools are well above that average, state enrollment data from earlier this year shows, including a few where those students account for about a quarter to nearly half of total enrollment. 

These students are considered English Learners — a designation based on an average score across proficiency levels of reading, writing, speaking and listening to English. The designation affords extra help to students, much like special education, in understanding their classroom teacher through alternative material, assignments or with a teacher speaking their native language. 

In a traditional classroom setting, they might listen to instructions in English from their teacher and then — depending on their level of proficiency — be pulled into a small group by another teacher who could help explain the instruction and assignments. Or their classroom teacher could quickly provide additional one-on-one assistance at a students desk after instructing the class. 

But schools in Orleans Parish have started virtually this year amid the pandemic. And those personal touches can be harder to relay in an online classroom with 25 video chat windows staring back. 

In late July, with COVID-19 cases rising, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced students would learn online until at least Labor Day. Last week, City of New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno outlined what the city needs to see before it’s safe to send students back to school. The district and city plan to evaluate health data at the end of the month to make a decision about in-person schooling.

Veronika Beyers, Einstein Charter Schools’ director of second language programs, said everyone is adapting. 

“Usually we would have everyone, the whole group being introduced by the core teacher,” Beyers said. “Then an EL teacher could pull a group aside and continue teaching a modified curriculum according to their needs.” 

At Einstein Charter Schools, which runs four schools in New Orleans East, EL students make up between 21 and 45 percent of students on each campus, Beyers said. 

Now, those EL teachers are jumping into Zoom calls and Google Hangouts to assist students. Einstein has also sent home textbooks in EL students’ native language — mainly Vietnamese and Spanish. 

Cristy Rosales-Fajardo runs El Pueblo Nola/NOLA Village, a nonprofit in New Orleans East. She will often translate calls for Spanish speakers. She says not only is the need for EL services in online classrooms important, but they help to ensure that parents who don’t speak English at home are able to help their children. That includes help with logging on to a student’s computers to set them up for virtual learning, when instructions may not be provided in their language. 

“What’s happening right now is my number one headache,” she said. “We’re dealing with a lot of parents who don’t know how to deal with computers.”

In one instance, she said, “The code didn’t match the child’s name and so the parent didn’t know what to do.”

She feels like she’s putting out fires, she said. 

One school she explicitly praised for its work with non-native speakers is the Living School. 

Stephen Pasternak runs the startup high school on Bullard Avenue in New Orleans East. He says Rosales-Fajardo “deserves a lot of credit” for helping connect families to schools and identify community needs. 

“I think if you look on paper other folks might have more sophisticated EL programs in some ways. But our approach is more human-centric and holistic,” he said. “So often folks and English Learners are trying to navigate this gauntent of bureaucracies. We try to make it not feel like that.”

In its second year of operation, the Living School has about 80 students in its ninth and tenth grades. About ten students are officially designated EL, Pasternak said. When it comes to virtual learning, it’s about providing support, he said, just like it is in the classroom.

“The simplest answer is you push in support with translation and written translated assignments that are pushed asynchronously,” he said. 

In the virtual environment, schools are often choosing between hosting live classes with a teacher and students interacting online — synchronously —  or recording academic instruction or other instructional videos and posting the videos online so students can view it on their own time — asynchronously. 

“We only have one part time EL coach but she does a really great job being flexible in their classes and breaking out with them,” he said. 

Living School also tries to use audio books read in the students’ native languages, Pasternak said. He also encourages teachers, where appropriate, to help substitute an assignment relative to the student’s life.

“We’re pretty good at moving organically. If the assignment is X in class, what are they doing already in their life that is a lot more relevant in their context and how can we help create that into an assignment to not only get credit in class but also share with their peers?” Pasternak said.

Online screening

Beyers said Einstein’s yearly screening process looks a bit different this year. Each fall, schools survey enrolling students for English proficiency. This year that’s happening online. 

“What language do you speak at home? What language do your parents speak at home?” Beyers explained. “We screen students if they indicate they speak a different language at home.”

They test students in reading, writing, speaking and listening, which is averaged across the four areas. This year, they are granting provisional EL status to some kindergarten students.

Students in first grade through 12th have the option of a native language textbook to follow along with as their teacher teaches. The school also provides additional support, Beyers explained.

Some “will be pulled out and participate in [language] development curriculum,” she said. “ESL teachers will also be pushing into classes to support the core curriculum, [English] and Math.”

Einstein’s Chief of Staff, J.C. Romero, said they also work with families. 

“We translate all of our materials into Spanish and Vietnamese. And we have Spanish and Vietnamese speaking staff who work at every single one of our schools and are there now,” he said in an interview Thursday afternoon. 

“Our director of instructional technology has been intentional about translating ‘how to’ videos,” Romero said. 

Einstein staff also received training on an app “that can translate texts on the spot into multiple languages,” he added. 

“We have an email address, ayuda@einsteincharterschools.org,” he said. (‘Ayuda’ is Spanish for ‘help.’)

The school hosted a P-EBT workshop for families to help them apply for an additional allocation of food stamps due to the pandemic and on Thursday they were wrapping up a session aimed to help connect families to the internet, he said. 

“Those different pieces of communication that make up our comprehensive family engagement program.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...