English Learners Struggle with Virtual School

In this photo taken Sept. 11, 2014, a student in the Accelerating Preliterate English Language Learners (A.P.E.L.L) class, taught by Lori Ott, of Millsboro, Del., at the G.W. Career Educational Center in Frankford, Del., looks over a worksheet aimed at teaching basic introductions in English. U.S. schools are now dealing with the fallout from the dramatic spike in the number of children and teenagers who crossed into the United States unaccompanied by family; the Supreme Court has ruled that they have an obligation to educate all students regardless of their immigration status. (AP Photo/Emily Varisco)

By ALEXIS MARSHALL, WPLN-FM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ The virtual return to classrooms has been an adjustment for all students. But for English learners, there’s yet another barrier, and it’s a real impact on participation: In the first few weeks, EL students logged into online school 9% less than their peers, according to data from Metro Nashville Public Schools.

But since then, people on all sides of education have rallied to support Nashville’s English Learners.

Isabella is one of many students who’s struggled to get set up with online school. The second grader was lugging her laptop outside Glenview Elementary earlier this semester. She said logging into Schoology, the online learning platform, was complicated. “I didn’t know what to do with my computer,” she said.

One thing that’s made it harder: Her family doesn’t speak much English.

Many students rely on parents to help walk them through websites and assignments. But that’s a big challenge for non-English speaking families, in addition to the hurdle of understanding the technology.

“One of the biggest challenges we had was making sure that parents were aware of what virtual schooling looks like for their child, understanding how to log into Schoology, what that system is, understanding where your assignments will be placed,” said Tim Mwizerwa, who works with refugees at Legacy Mission Village.

Mwizerwa said at the beginning of the school year, a lot of families were reaching out for help. The organization offered help for parents, provided virtual tutoring and even let some kids come to its offices to complete their classwork.

At that time, each school had a different way of supporting parents, which could make it complicated. A single family with kids at multiple schools could be juggling different schedules and different ways to access help. Mwizerwa’s team had been filling in gaps.

And the non-profit wasn’t alone in that effort. Even individual parents started helping.

PARENTS, THEN THE DISTRICT

Beatriz Ordaz Ramirez had a a rocky experience getting her second grader signed into classes. After calling the school and figuring out how to make it work, she wanted to show other Spanish-speaking parents how to do the same.

She created videos explaining how to access online school, and shared them via Whatsapp and Facebook. She also got featured in Nashville Noticias, a Spanish-language news source. Nashville Noticias also has a partnership with WPLN News.

“I helped you. If you can help somebody else, help them!” she says in Spanish. “I taught you what I know. You can share it with other people.”

In recent weeks, MNPS has bolstered its support for these families too. It opened six outdoor virtual help centers.

Molly Hegwood, director for Metro’s Office of English Learners, said accessibility was baked into the district’s plan for the help centers. “We wanted to make sure that they were in the heart of the communities where our English learners live, connected with what the data said was an area of need, and then also a site where families could access the site easily _ on a bus line, a walkable community.”

The outdoor sites help with issues like resetting computers and passwords, and bookmarking pages so that students can quickly navigate to their login page.

And as school has gone on, they’re starting to get different types of questions.

“Now we’re really supporting families more in the work,” Hegwood said, “Like last week there was a lot of, `I want to submit this assignment, but but I want to do it as a video and audio.’ They’ve really progressed in where they are, and have become more fluent in technology.”

She said the vast majority of students coming to the Glenview site have been English learners. The site at Glenview Elementary has Spanish and Arabic interpreters on site to help communicate with families.

`THEY’RE VERY PERSISTENT’

One of them is Amad Shamsaldin. He’s quadrilingual, and though he usually works in registration, he’s been lending a hand with the tech site. He’s been struck by just how dedicated parents are to getting their kids to class. They’re taking advantage of every resource available, he said.

“I’m really proud of them. I’m proud of these families, because it’s really difficult for them. And they’re very persistent. They’re very worried,” Shamsaldin said. “They just want them to get the best education they can.”

He’s proud of families like Isabella’s, the Glenview student who needed help with Schoology. Her mother, Fani Martinez, called the school four times to get help, and the first week it opened, she visited the tech site.

“It’s been really hard,” Martinez said, but she’s still trying. She walked Isabella to the help tent, watching over her daughter’s shoulder as staff explained step by step how to log into her virtual class.

As they were getting ready to leave Glenview, Martinez said she felt confident that their problems were solved. She and Isabella walked away, laptop in tow, to make it home in time for math class.

MNPS will staff its outdoor virtual learning centers through the end of this week. It’s finalizing plans to continue tech support when kids come back from fall break.