Exploring Southold schools ‘unintentional divide’

Sophia Bartolani was in the Southold school district’s English as a New Language program for about a month after arriving in the United States from Rome at 8 years old. It didn’t take long for her to notice an inherent divide in students’ educational experience.

“Already there, you saw the separation between the two,” she said. “Elementary school was better, but then once I got to high school, it was just really obvious that there is a separation between these two groups.”

Earlier this year, as a high school senior and inspired by her peers’ experience, she wrote an article in the fall edition of the school’s newspaper, The Sentinel, titled, “Southold’s Cultural Divide.” The piece highlights the struggles that she and her fellow ENL students have experienced integrating with native English speakers from outside the program and urges the school to create more opportunities for inclusion. “[ENL students] want to communicate with people outside of their class, but it’s a combination of language, and they’re shy,” Sophia wrote.

While each ENL student’s curriculum is tailored to their individual language-learning needs, most learn English together, regardless of their native language — and separate from native English-speaking students. This creates what Sophia described as an “unintentional divide,” effectively segregating the student body onto distinct educational tracks based on their native languages that are not easily diverted from.

Sophia — who will return to Rome for college in the fall to study international relations — worked at The Sentinel throughout high school. She reported on her article for three weeks, interviewing multiple students as well as teachers.

The ENL program, previously known as English as a Second Language, or ESL, “emphasizes English language acquisition,” according to the New York State Department of Education website. “In an ENL program, language arts and content-area instruction are taught in English using specific ENL instructional strategies.” 

The students participating in the program are taught language arts and other classes in English. Some classes are integrated with native English-speaking students. Those integrated classes are taught by instructors certified in both the content area, such as math or science, and ENL. They can also be co-taught by a certified content-area teacher and a certified ENL teacher.

According to education department data, 40% of the Southold school district’s 698 students in grades K-12 are English language learners. Those students come from a variety of different countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Turkey and Pakistan.

Lisa Simonetti, director of guidance and pupil personnel services at Southold, said ENL instructors are taught to prioritize language acquisition strategies, which enable students to better retain new language skills.

“It’s not about the [native] language necessarily, it’s about the strategies to become proficient in another language,” she said. “So regardless of what the student’s home language is — whether it’s Spanish, whether it’s Urdu, whether it’s Turkish, whether it’s Farsi — the strategies and the instructional priorities remain the same.”

The Southold district currently employs five ENL teachers — two at the high school, two at the elementary school and one split between the two, Ms. Simonetti said. 

The school also offers cultural classes, which Southold ENL instructor Evelyn Balcacer said help ease interactions between native and non-native English speakers. The ENL program also publishes a magazine each year where students can share their stories, which Ms. Balcacer said creates more visibility for program participants. 

“I think it’s important because it gives [native English-speaking] students a better understanding of what some of these kids go through just to get here and why they’re even here — why they leave their home countries to come here,” Ms. Simonetti said.

Despite these efforts, Sophia and other non-native English speakers feel there is much more that can and should be done to more effectively integrate the entire student body.

A holistic integration that not only fosters academic success, but also social and emotional growth for the students within the ENL program would benefit the community at large, said Sonia Spar, head of Spanish Speaking Community Services for Southold Town. As a community service worker, Ms. Spar, who arrived in the U.S. from Colombia almost two decades ago, recognizes many of the challenges the town’s Spanish-speaking students and their families have faced. She feels strongly that by taking a “more culturally responsive” approach to education, the schools could play a big role in better integrating the entire community. 

Sophia isn’t the only student who has noticed the unintentional divide created by the ENL program. 

Amy Estrada arrived in the U.S. from Guatemala in November 2014 at age 9 and spent two years in Southold’s elementary ENL program. Last month, she graduated as Southold High School’s salutatorian and will attend Cornell University to study economics and international development.

Despite her academic success, Amy struggled to socialize with native English speakers throughout her ENL experience. But after she successfully tested out of the program, she said that socializing with native English speakers became much easier and she soon made friends of various ethnicities.

“If others were more welcoming, I think a lot of the ENL students would put themselves more out there,” Amy said, adding that sometimes students outside the program assume that those learning English are not as well educated.

Meanwhile, learning a new language, adapting to a new culture and striving for academic success all at the same time encourages students within the program to bond with each other. Turkish student Melisanur Yanikdag — a sophomore at Southold High School who started in the program two years ago, said she views her peers within the ENL program as “siblings,” exemplifying how close those students can become.

“I see them all day and I’m with them all day,” she said, “almost in all my classes.” 

James Ridgely, who teaches at Mattituck High School, said that the divide between native and non-native English speakers is not as prevalent in that district.

Mattituck, which calls its program English Language Learning, purposefully integrates ELL students into general education classroom settings in an effort to break down social barriers. “There’s no separation between the students,” Mr. Ridgely said. “While it might be difficult for a new language learner in a class [where] the teachers are speaking specifically English, the students get to know each other that way.”

The Mattituck district’s 1,000 students include 109 English Language Learners, 44 of them in grades 7-12, according to NYSED data. But despite having fewer non-native English speaking students, the district employs six ENL teachers, two at the junior and senior high level and four in the elementary school, Mr. Ridgely said.

Aside from encouraging students to participate in extracurriculars like sports or clubs where they will interact with more native English speakers, the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District also has Rafael Morais serving as a community liaison, helping parents with paperwork for registration and other needed outreach services such as guidance counseling, making sure students are on track for graduation, helping them with classwork, even making doctor’s appointments.

“I think the help that he provides allows students and families to feel comfortable and confident while living here,” Mr. Ridgely said. “And I think that carries over into the classroom as well as outside of the classroom.” 

Ms. Spar believes graduating students must use their voices to further erode social barriers between ENL students and native English speakers across the North Fork.

“I think that these students, when they graduate [and] they voice out what is happening, my hope is that the school listens, that the teachers listen,” Ms. Spar said. “If the students don’t communicate that, then how can the school find ways to improve? The schools have the students’ best interest on their mind and I think they should be having the conversations with the students, and figuring out how to not isolate English language learners or multilingual learners.”

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