Friday, April 19, 2024

University of Notre Dame Workshop Presents Educators with Strategies on Serving and Supporting English Learners

A recent workshop for teachers and administrators from a number of Diocesan schools reminded Catholic school educators that Latino students are not the future of the Church. Rather, they are the present.

Consider: one of every two children in the United States are Latino, yet only 4 percent of them are enrolled in Catholic schools. By 2025, one in four students will be classified as English learners.

In an endeavor to assist principals and teachers in welcoming, serving and supporting students whose primary language is not English, the Diocesan Office of Catholic Education partnered with the University of Notre Dame for a workshop, “Welcoming and Supporting English Learners,” at the Diocesan Center in Harrisburg on December 2.

Some 85 teachers and administrators – including several from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Diocese of Greensburg and local Intermediate Units – were present for the event, which put practical ideas and staggering statistics into the hands of today’s Catholic school educators.

“If Catholic schools were to enroll five to ten percent of Latino children, we would never close another school,” said presenter Jocelyn Smith. She teamed with fellow University of Notre Dame educator Jennifer Dees in sessions on the legacy and future of Catholic schools and misconceptions about English learners.

“The focus on this effort for English learners is to embrace and educate these children. It’s not just about filling our seats; it’s about giving these students the best possible education holistically and culturally,” Smith said.

“Bringing English learners into our schools is beyond enrollment,” she continued. “We owe it to these children to give them an exceptional product. Yes, we want every single possible student to be sitting in our seats, but we also want to give them the best possible product.”

Diocesan Superintendent, Daniel Breen, pointed to changing demographics in Diocesan schools, including in areas such as Lancaster, York, Gettysburg and Hanover, where Latino students account for more than one-third to nearly half of the student population.

“For the first time ever in the Diocese of Harrisburg, we have 1,000 Latino students in our schools. In the Latino community in our schools, we grew by ten percent since last year,” Breen said. “But we have more to do. We need the Latino community in our Catholic schools because they are in our communities.”

“We don’t exist unless we have students to serve. We need them because it’s a matter of mission – we are commissioned to go make disciples of all nations, and one of the keys to Catholic education is accessibility. And we need the Latino community because they bring strengths to our schools,” he said.

Across four presentations – including focused workshops on classroom strategies and best practices when welcoming English learners – Smith and Dees served-up real-world and practical approaches, all with the caveat that the task is difficult, the guarantee that it can be accomplished, and the promise that it’s worth the confidence and success they’ll see in their students.

“We have to make sure that when we’re bringing English learners into our schools, we are giving them the tools to be successful,” Smith said.

These tools include instructional approaches to bring their culture into the classroom, bilingual word walls, and sentence prompts.

“If you’re willing to step into this work, it will be long lasting, not just one and done,” she said.

Dees challenged the administrators and teachers to know exactly who their English learners are, where they are from and what languages they speak.

“If you don’t definitively know that information, find the answers,” she said. “It’s easy to identify our kids on paper, but that doesn’t mean we know who they are or what a day in the classroom might be like for them.”

On average, it takes English learners five to seven years to become grade-level fluent in English, Dees pointed out – a number that fluctuates based largely upon their education.

“They are not devoid of knowledge. They are smart and they are like sponges soaking up knowledge,” Dees said. “Give them more patience and encouragement. They are learning content; they just might not be confident enough to show you in the classroom.”

She suggested teachers prompt responses from English learners by asking students to circle, point to or label an object; provide sentence stems, or invite students to select one goal at a time – like proper punctuation, capitalization or use of pronouns – when writing a paragraph.

Dees also reviewed the four domains of language – listening, reading, speaking and writing – underscoring the fact that students are assessed on the hardest two, speaking and writing.

“Language supports are beneficial to all of your students,” Dees remarked.

“You’re either the rungs in their ladder to help them achieve, or another roadblock in their lives,” she said.

Patty Fertal, who teaches third grade at Resurrection Catholic School in Lancaster, was one of the workshop participants. Fifty percent of the students at Resurrection are English learners.

“When I came to this workshop, I was looking for information on how I can educate my students, who speak Spanish and Vietnamese, and the presentations were right on the money regarding how to minister to them,” Fertal said.

“Learning strategies like adding gestures, incorporating pictures and using simple sentences are things that don’t cost money in order to enhance your classroom for students who are English learners,” she said.

“The practical ideas offered at the workshop are critical to what we do in a Catholic school,” Fertal said. “I recognize that the schools’ mission is to bring them into the fold and when they get here, that’s where I step in, so I have to know how to make things work for them. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to come here and am thankful for my school board for understanding the importance of it.”

Kathleen Smith is principal of Holy Trinity Catholic School in York, where Latino students are 42 percent of the population.

The school has taken strides to hire an interpreter for the main office and aide who speaks Spanish to assist with younger students, a number of whom do not speak English. Office personnel and teachers are learning basic Spanish, and school communications are disseminated in both languages.

Smith said the workshop provided additional guidance for steps she and her faculty and staff can incorporate into the school as they continue efforts to welcome, educate and support English learners.

“When we undertook these efforts, it wasn’t a grand statement saying that we were changing our mission or who we are. We already are a diverse community, and this was already our mission. It’s just about recognizing the diversity and then acting upon it and celebrating it,” Smith said.

Our Church is changing, and if we’re really going to be true evangelists, we have to reach everyone,” she said. This is the path. We want to embrace everyone coming into our schools.”

Learn more about Catholic schools in the Diocese at

(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

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