English language learners program helps students, families

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published July 22, 2015

 ELL teacher Kathleen Snyder talks to students about punctuation marks on the front page of a book that a student brought in to read and discuss July 7 at Gill Elementary School.

ELL teacher Kathleen Snyder talks to students about punctuation marks on the front page of a book that a student brought in to read and discuss July 7 at Gill Elementary School.

Photo by Deb Jacques

FARMINGTON HILLS — Within one month, Longacre Elementary School fifth-grader Vaishnavi Chintalapati can confidently say that her English has improved, and she even has tips for those who might want to brush up on the language.


“If you have something really hard to read and you don’t know how to read, you might take some books and learn how to read them,” she said.


Vaishnavi, sporting a Tinkerbell T-shirt, discussed her journey of bettering her English July 7 at Gill Elementary School during a Farmington Public Schools program for English language learners.


In the ELL program, Celebrate Learning at Summer School, 65 kindergarten through sixth-grade students attended the four-week session for four days each week June 24-July 9. The program is over 10 years old.


Seven ELL middle school and high school volunteers help the program’s six classroom teachers and three paraprofessionals.


The elementary school students learned reading and writing skills, along with interpersonal skills.


On July 7, ELL program coordinator and teacher Emily Davis helped students say “hello” through various greetings and gestures.


A handful of students selected greetings such as “hi,” “shalom,” “what’s up,” and more. Gestures included hugs, handshakes and fist bumps.


“Some of them speak very proficient English. Some are new to this country,” Davis said in her classroom beforehand. “Many of our families are learning English as well.”


She said the program focuses on helping young children practice their oral language skills and to read and write at their grade level so they have a learning boost before school starts.


In FPS, the district’s more than 10,000 students speak at least 100 different first languages. In the program, at least 30 languages are spoken. Students hail from Albania, various countries in Africa, Portugal, Spain, Japan and more.


“Many of them were not born here, some of them were — we’re very lucky to get all these different families and cultures, and this program is a place where we celebrate and help students feel very, very comfortable.”


Vaishnavi, 10, came to America from India at 9 years old, and she found out about the program from an ELL teacher who contacted her parents.


“She lets us read books that makes our reading skills (better),” she said of her teacher.


From reading and writing to taking care of plants and a turtle named “Willie,” Vaishnavi said her favorite part of the day is reading and writing.


“On Monday and Thursday we get to feed Willie,” she said. “He’s a small turtle.”


She added that while living in India, she was surrounded by countless languages. Vaishnavi speaks four: Kannada, Telugu, Hindi and English.


“It sounds like you have been speaking English your whole life,” Davis said encouragingly. “I only know how to speak English, but I’m learning a little bit (of Hindi).”


“I grew all my skills. Like in the reading, I improved my reading skills; at writing, my handwriting skills,” Vaishnavi said, beaming.


Students take a writing prompt at the end of the program to evaluate progress made throughout the four weeks.


“We have seen a lot of growth in students. Sometimes it is small things, like when they are speaking using the correct pronouns and correct tense,” Davis said. “But I think the bigger picture of what we do is seeing that our school is safe, school is fun, learning is fun.”


Davis said that as soon as students move into the U.S. and qualify to be in the summer school program they are enrolled. Qualifications are based on the ability to speak English and reading scores.


Volunteer Kaho Okada, a Harrison High School senior, said she went into the program to grow her skills.


“When I grow up I want to be an English teacher,” Okada said that day.


Okada, who helps students with computer sessions and reading, said learning English is different in America than in her homeland of Japan.


“In my country, they try to teach them mostly grammar. Here, they are not really focusing on grammar, but reading and speaking,” she said.


Davis said the Farmington area is “really fortunate” to have the diversity that it has.


“We want to make sure our students and our families feel very welcome here because it is a great place,” she said.