Hurricane Maria Brings Influx of New English Learners

By Jillian Weynand

Two months after Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, the islanders have picked up and moved to Long Island to start over. Families have come to Long Island in search of jobs, homes and the chance of an education for their children.

While families are starting over and learning how to adapt in their new respective homes, students of all ages are setting off to attend school, where they will most likely be learning a new language, English. As of February of this year, 7 percent of students on Long Island struggle with a limited proficiency in English.

“Currently we are getting an influx of students from Puerto Rico who were affected by the hurricane,” Lori Squillacioti, a middle school special education teacher, said. “The school’s overall population is changing rapidly with more and more ENL students. As you walk through the hallways in between classes you hear more Spanish being spoken than English.” In the community where she teaches, 34.5 percent of the population is Hispanic and 40 percent of the school district is Hispanic, according to 2015 census data.

As a special education teacher, Squillacioti teaches alongside another classroom teacher and follows her students through the days to all of their core subjects. In her English Language Arts class, she is one of six teachers in the room. Two students require full-time aides and a certified dual language teacher comes in to speak with students in both Spanish and English.

At the Deer Park High School, Lisa Kiernan works as a dual-language teacher for math classes, using both Spanish and English. One of her classes has only four students who moved here from Central America. Her class time with them includes learning pre-algebra and English. Twenty-one percent of the student body is Hispanic in the Deer Park school district, according to 2015 census data.


Like Squillacioti, Kiernan works with students who have also had a break in formal education. It isn’t uncommon for students who grow up in areas in Central America to leave the classroom to go to work instead to contribute to their family income.

“These are roadblocks that often only ENL students seem to face,” Kiernan said. “In many low-income areas of El Salvador and other countries in Central America, school is an option for kids.”

Both Kiernan and Squillacioti said that they see minimal parental involvement in their children’s education. Frequent parent-teacher conferences at the Deer Park High School have low attendance rates.

“Something is going to have to change within our school to accommodate our growing ENL population,” Squillacioti said.  “ENL students lack in technology skills, English vocabulary, and home support. All of the above impact their success in school.”

Notices are sent home with students and are printed in both Spanish and English, but fourth-grade teacher Jackie Dale at North East Elementary School, said it doesn’t break the communication barrier.

For 90 minutes every day, an English as a New Language teacher comes to her class to work on a different core subject each day and teaches the class in both Spanish and English, allowing students to learn English and teach other students Spanish, to be able to communicate with their peers.

“In the first month of school I had to make a phone call home to each family to introduce myself,” Dale said. “Of the 25 homes I called, I needed a translator for 21 of them.” In the Brentwood community, 71% of the community is Hispanic and the school district is 82% Hispanic, according to 2015 census data.

The fourth-grade teacher said that her students who have learned English at school do not practice it at home. Spanish is the primary language in their homes. Her students have access to translating dictionaries in class but they often go for the English dictionary because they have a strong understanding of the language already.

A former tutor for ENL students at Centereach High School, Brian Garcia,  worked with students in a remedial class that met only three times a week who spoke little to no English.

“The school didn’t have a properly trained ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher available, so a history teacher with no Spanish ability taught during one of his free periods,” Garcia said. “It was about a dozen students in all, all of which were Spanish speakers but two. And it wasn’t technically an ESL class, it was a remedial class that ESL students were put in because there was nowhere else for them.”

The former tutor told a story about an Afghan student whose native language was Urdu and the regents exam was not printed in Urdu. She was given special permission to use a translation dictionary, however, the school and local libraries didn’t have one. Her family had to purchase one for her to be able to sit and take the exam.

A few miles away from Centereach High School is Suffolk County Community College, where Dr. June Ohrnberger, the college director of ESL programs oversees the department.

Students can take a placement test for non-credit ESL classes before they decide to enroll at the community college. Parents of students who have moved her from Puerto Rico have access to these classes, but the multi-level course is not covered by financial aid or scholarships.

“The most challenging part of teaching ENL is making sure the content is appropriate for the students’ age levels,” Tara Scarola, an elementary school teacher from Levittown, said. “I have to make sure the material I am using is both cognitively stimulating and language accessible for the students.”

It is often that Scarola will use her teaching materials to her advantage. She said she will shorten sentences and use pictures where a visual aid would help.

“In many cases, students had an education in their native language, so it is important to not make them feel babied or introduce content that is too strong to interact with their peers,” Scarola said.

Cultural differences change the way students communicate about certain topics. Sometimes Scarola sees her students shying away from a conversation that they cannot relate to.

“ENL students run into a lot of roadblocks that native speakers don’t,” Scarola said. “In many cases, they have to translate it into their language, think of a response and then translate their response in English.”

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