English Learners Face a Giant Challenge at NHS


The ELD Workshop Classroom

Joshua Lieberstein

The English Language Development classes are part of a program at Novato High aimed to integrate English Language Learners (ELL’s) into a predominantly English-speaking school. Many of the students come from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico, as well as other countries, and they often have little to no English experience prior to coming to America. 

These students arrive at Novato High unable to communicate not only with their teachers but with their peers. They often struggle with content and lectures in their classes, specifically history. These students might not be interested in the inner workings of how America was created or World Wars. Many of these students might simply not connect with the curriculum being taught.

Evan Underwood-Jett, a history teacher at Novato High, has had many ELL students in his classes over the past few years. He sometimes struggles with teaching them, but has learned to overcome these challenges to give these students the best possible education.

“I speak Spanish at probably a third-grade level and I’m not afraid to try to speak Spanish to [my students],” Underwood-Jett said. “For some things, I think it works really well and in other things, like actually explaining content, I don’t have the vocabulary, I don’t have the ability, and so that’s the really challenging thing.” 

Underwood-Jett isn’t the only teacher at Novato High that has ELL students. Fifth-year teacher Danny Kambur has these students not only in his regular College and Career Readiness classes but also in his ELD Workshop classes. Kambur is an integral member of the ELD program, being part of the support system for these students during the workshop classes that he teaches.

“They all understand that they’re kind of behind the eight-ball, they understand that they are here in the United States, they don’t speak the language, very frequently they are not necessarily familiar even with the culture, and in general they are desirous of learning,” Kambur said, when asked about how he personally feels about his ELD students. 

This sentiment is shared by Assistant Principal and ELD coordinator Michelle Cortez. Cortez is in charge of assigning newcomers to different levels of English fluency, using the state standard ELPAC test which every new student must take within 30 days of arriving at Novato High. Depending on the results, the students will be put into one of four levels of ELD: beginner, intermediate, advanced or fluent.

“We’re talking about some kids that are so brilliant and so resilient, and that have had amazing life adventures and we need to start thinking about them for their assets and not their deficits. So the idea here is that it’s hard, and I know it’s pushing kids to put them in with native speakers in their history classes and math classes, but at the same time we hope to accelerate language learning so that by the time they’re ready to graduate, they still have all the graduation requirements they need,” said Cortez.

One of these students, Daniel Mazariegos, a junior here at Novato High, struggles on a daily basis with his classes because of his lack of English language understanding. 

When asked if he receives support from his other teachers, Mazariegos said “Very few classes, not really overall. It affects my learning a lot.” 

This is an ongoing issue at Novato High.

“We learn content not just by studying the language on its own but we learn language through situations and context,” said Cortez, referring to one of the successful ways of assimilating.

Kambur realizes that the issue is not the students’ motivation to learn.

“Every kid who walks in here is absolutely motivated to learn English. There is not a single kid here who doesn’t understand the obvious and immediate importance of learning English, if they’re going to stay in the United States long term,” Kambur said. 

The real issue seems to stem from a lack of support in other classes. Teachers struggle to provide the needed support for ELL’s because most teachers at Novato High do not speak Spanish fluently and struggle to differentiate every single assignment and activity. The ELD program is finding ways to work around these issues by implementing new ways to supplement the learning of these ELL’s.

“We make these little cohorts of ELD students in certain classes, so that they’re getting support from each other and support from our ELD support classes,” Cortez said. “There’s like cohorts of kids in the English classes and in history classes and math classes. It’s not necessarily that the teacher is bilingual but it’s teachers who have really strong instructional strategies that support English Language Learners.”

Nevertheless, there are success stories from the ELD program. Senior Gustavo Alves has been at Novato High for two years after moving to the United States from Brazil and is now almost fluent in English.  

“[I learned English] mainly from outside [materials], like watching series from Netflix and all that stuff helped me a lot. But, I feel that, [for] my writing and reading, the ELD program helped a lot because they really focus on that,” Alves said.

Alves also said that he feels he has outgrown the ELD program.

“I feel like I can actually go to a normal English class because, to be honest, right now I’m not really learning anything new because I feel like there’s a lot of people still a little bit back in the class so [Ms. Slavin] tries to help those people. So I’m not learning anything new, but I totally understand she has to help everybody so maybe changing classes to a class that would be more useful for me would be a good thing.”

The importance of enhancing this program even more is at an all-time high, as the number of immigrants from other countries isn’t decreasing. The urgency to integrate these ELL’s into not only Novato High, but the United States as a whole is higher than ever.