Uniondale schools created a middle school program to help students transition into a new educational system to close the academic gaps cause by COVID disruptions. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Marisa DeSerio, who teaches English-language learners at Pulaski Street Intermediate School in Riverhead, makes changes to her lessons every year. In the past two years, though, she’s tinkered even more than before. 

She’s been color-coding more words for emphasis. She's been more explicit when conveying her expectations. And she's been adding more visual prompts to make it easier for her students to absorb the content.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve had to fill in some gaps due to the interrupted education,” said DeSerio, who teaches fifth and sixth grades. “Our students really missed out on some foundational literacy instruction because that's really something that's hard to do virtually without that explicit teaching.”

All students experienced upheaval during the pandemic, but English-language learners like those whom DeSerio teaches were hit harder. That group missed more school days and scored much lower on tests than the average student population, according to the latest results released by the state Education Department. 

For example, only 15% of English-language learners in grades 3-8 who tested last spring passed math, compared to nearly 39% for all students statewide. In English, the group fared even worse: About 13% scored proficient or better, compared to nearly 47% for all students.

Long Island districts have responded by creating or expanding programs to extend instructional time, offering more mentorship opportunities, and targeting help to address rising needs from a growing student population.

In Copiague, the district has been running a Saturday academy for ENL — English as a New Language — students for two decades. Schools Superintendent Kathleen Bannon said the program grew by more than 150 this year, including students as well as their parents who take English and citizenship classes, when compared to pre-pandemic times.

“We are seeing absolutely more students participating,” Bannon said. “Attendance has definitely increased, and it is much more consistent.”

In the 2021-22 school year, there were more than 42,000 English-language learners out of 420,000 students in Nassau and Suffolk school districts, or about 10%, according to enrollment data. In some districts, including Brentwood, Central Islip and Riverhead, that segment accounts for one-third of the student body.

The group on Long Island and across the state is diverse: The majority speak Spanish, but other frequently spoken languages include Chinese and Arabic.

The life circumstances of the students can differ widely, from unaccompanied minors who recently arrived in the country to children born in the U.S. but raised in households that speak a language other than English.

Over the years, many districts on the Island have hired more staff to work with this particular student population.

When DeSerio started at Pulaski Street Intermediate School in 2008, she was the only one teaching the building’s 36 English-language learners. Now, she’s one of six teaching 323 at Pulaski.

"Our [English-language learners] population has exploded," she said.

The Wyandanch school district, beginning in September, launched a pilot where the high school’s five ENL teachers meet daily to go over data, discuss student performance and do family outreach, said Christine Jordan, assistant to the superintendent for Administrative and Instructional Accountability.

One of the things the group looks at is absences, she said. 

"You could be the absolute best teacher in the absolute best school, doing the absolute best curriculum with the best resources. But if the students aren't there, what does it matter?" Jordan said, noting the pilot aims to take a deeper look at how attendance is impacting student growth and intervention strategies.

Next month, the Mattituck-Cutchogue school district will again offer an after-school intervention initiative that was piloted last academic year. Known as the extended learning day program, its aim is to help struggling students, including English-language learners, said Shawn Petretti, the district superintendent.

Even before the pandemic, many English-language learners were reading and writing significantly below grade levels. For students with interrupted or inconsistent formal education — a subgroup of English-language learners known as SIFE — a state manual released in late 2019 included profiles of high school students who were reading at or below third-, fourth- and sixth-grade levels. 

Since the pandemic, some educators said they have seen a rise in SIFE students. That increase prompted Uniondale schools to create a middle school program to help students transition into a new educational system to close the academic gaps. The same SIFE program already exists at the high school.

The middle school program started in September with eight students. By early December, the class size had risen to 14, according to Renata Anqa, director of ENL/Bilingual Programs and World Languages in Uniondale schools.

Victoria Basantes, Uniondale’s ENL/Bilingual Student Intake coordinator, said she and others screened 465 students from July 1 through early December, assessing students' proficiency in English and math, as well as their educational background and home language literacy.

“Most of the students, when they come in, especially since the pandemic, in their homeland, they stopped going to school,” said Basantes, an English-language learner herself when growing up in New York City. “Sometimes, we have students from Honduras, now that it's very dangerous, so parents are afraid to send them back to school.”

“Most of the students have had interruptions since 2019,” she said.

Districtwide, the number of students in the SIFE program reached 58, including 30 at the high school, the 14 middle-schoolers, and the rest in elementary levels. Last year, the total was 16, Anqa said. 

“A lot of that generation, pre-K through second grade, they happen to be in a pandemic,” Anqa said of the increase of SIFE students in lower grades. “Some of these students are for the first time in school this year.”

While students could be below grade levels, DeSerio, in Riverhead, said they are resilient and often catch up quickly when provided with learning tools.

“The great thing about English-language learners is, when they're provided with explicit instruction and you support it along the way, their progress accelerates quite quickly,” she said.

Anqa, an immigrant from Bosnia who attended Suffolk County Community College in her late 30s as a mother of three, agreed.

“We cannot forget that these students come with a lot of life experience,” she said. “When you give them academic skills, they are able to figure out, because they are resourceful [in] how to apply it.”

With Michael R. Ebert

Marisa DeSerio, who teaches English-language learners at Pulaski Street Intermediate School in Riverhead, makes changes to her lessons every year. In the past two years, though, she’s tinkered even more than before. 

She’s been color-coding more words for emphasis. She's been more explicit when conveying her expectations. And she's been adding more visual prompts to make it easier for her students to absorb the content.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve had to fill in some gaps due to the interrupted education,” said DeSerio, who teaches fifth and sixth grades. “Our students really missed out on some foundational literacy instruction because that's really something that's hard to do virtually without that explicit teaching.”

All students experienced upheaval during the pandemic, but English-language learners like those whom DeSerio teaches were hit harder. That group missed more school days and scored much lower on tests than the average student population, according to the latest results released by the state Education Department. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • English-language learners were hit harder during the pandemic, missing more school days and scoring much lower on tests than the average student population.
  • Educators said they see a rise of students with interrupted or inconsistent education, especially on the lower grade levels.
  • Long Island districts have responded by creating or expanding programs to extend instructional time, offering more mentorship opportunities, and targeting help to address rising needs from a growing student population.

For example, only 15% of English-language learners in grades 3-8 who tested last spring passed math, compared to nearly 39% for all students statewide. In English, the group fared even worse: About 13% scored proficient or better, compared to nearly 47% for all students.

Long Island districts have responded by creating or expanding programs to extend instructional time, offering more mentorship opportunities, and targeting help to address rising needs from a growing student population.

In Copiague, the district has been running a Saturday academy for ENL — English as a New Language — students for two decades. Schools Superintendent Kathleen Bannon said the program grew by more than 150 this year, including students as well as their parents who take English and citizenship classes, when compared to pre-pandemic times.

“We are seeing absolutely more students participating,” Bannon said. “Attendance has definitely increased, and it is much more consistent.”

Growing need

In the 2021-22 school year, there were more than 42,000 English-language learners out of 420,000 students in Nassau and Suffolk school districts, or about 10%, according to enrollment data. In some districts, including Brentwood, Central Islip and Riverhead, that segment accounts for one-third of the student body.

The group on Long Island and across the state is diverse: The majority speak Spanish, but other frequently spoken languages include Chinese and Arabic.

The life circumstances of the students can differ widely, from unaccompanied minors who recently arrived in the country to children born in the U.S. but raised in households that speak a language other than English.

Over the years, many districts on the Island have hired more staff to work with this particular student population.

When DeSerio started at Pulaski Street Intermediate School in 2008, she was the only one teaching the building’s 36 English-language learners. Now, she’s one of six teaching 323 at Pulaski.

"Our [English-language learners] population has exploded," she said.

Students at Phillips Avenue Elementary School in Riverhead.

Students at Phillips Avenue Elementary School in Riverhead. Credit: Tom Lambui

The Wyandanch school district, beginning in September, launched a pilot where the high school’s five ENL teachers meet daily to go over data, discuss student performance and do family outreach, said Christine Jordan, assistant to the superintendent for Administrative and Instructional Accountability.

One of the things the group looks at is absences, she said. 

"You could be the absolute best teacher in the absolute best school, doing the absolute best curriculum with the best resources. But if the students aren't there, what does it matter?" Jordan said, noting the pilot aims to take a deeper look at how attendance is impacting student growth and intervention strategies.

Next month, the Mattituck-Cutchogue school district will again offer an after-school intervention initiative that was piloted last academic year. Known as the extended learning day program, its aim is to help struggling students, including English-language learners, said Shawn Petretti, the district superintendent.

A rise in students with interrupted education

Even before the pandemic, many English-language learners were reading and writing significantly below grade levels. For students with interrupted or inconsistent formal education — a subgroup of English-language learners known as SIFE — a state manual released in late 2019 included profiles of high school students who were reading at or below third-, fourth- and sixth-grade levels. 

Since the pandemic, some educators said they have seen a rise in SIFE students. That increase prompted Uniondale schools to create a middle school program to help students transition into a new educational system to close the academic gaps. The same SIFE program already exists at the high school.

The middle school program started in September with eight students. By early December, the class size had risen to 14, according to Renata Anqa, director of ENL/Bilingual Programs and World Languages in Uniondale schools.

Marcella Rodriguez teaches English to students in a SIFE classroom at...

Marcella Rodriguez teaches English to students in a SIFE classroom at Turtle Hook Middle School in Uniondale. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Victoria Basantes, Uniondale’s ENL/Bilingual Student Intake coordinator, said she and others screened 465 students from July 1 through early December, assessing students' proficiency in English and math, as well as their educational background and home language literacy.

“Most of the students, when they come in, especially since the pandemic, in their homeland, they stopped going to school,” said Basantes, an English-language learner herself when growing up in New York City. “Sometimes, we have students from Honduras, now that it's very dangerous, so parents are afraid to send them back to school.”

“Most of the students have had interruptions since 2019,” she said.

Districtwide, the number of students in the SIFE program reached 58, including 30 at the high school, the 14 middle-schoolers, and the rest in elementary levels. Last year, the total was 16, Anqa said. 

“A lot of that generation, pre-K through second grade, they happen to be in a pandemic,” Anqa said of the increase of SIFE students in lower grades. “Some of these students are for the first time in school this year.”

While students could be below grade levels, DeSerio, in Riverhead, said they are resilient and often catch up quickly when provided with learning tools.

“The great thing about English-language learners is, when they're provided with explicit instruction and you support it along the way, their progress accelerates quite quickly,” she said.

Anqa, an immigrant from Bosnia who attended Suffolk County Community College in her late 30s as a mother of three, agreed.

“We cannot forget that these students come with a lot of life experience,” she said. “When you give them academic skills, they are able to figure out, because they are resourceful [in] how to apply it.”

With Michael R. Ebert

Latest videos