Experts Discuss Rhode Island’s English Learner Achievement Gap at RIC

Oct 17, 2018 Issues: Education, Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) today convened a panel discussion at Rhode Island College focused on improving educational outcomes for Rhode Island’s English learner (EL) student population. Participants discussed policies and best practices to address the impact of Rhode Island’s EL teacher shortage on the academic performance of ELs.

“Every child deserves the opportunity to live up to their full potential. It is clear, however, that Rhode Island’s English learners are facing significant barriers exacerbated by the fact that our schools lack the resources, particularly teachers, needed to keep pace with this growing population,” said Congressman Langevin, who introduced legislation to address the EL academic achievement gap earlier this year. “While it was encouraging to hear about the latest initiatives in Rhode Island aimed at accommodating EL students, it remains clear that we need increased federal investment to ensure they truly have equal opportunities to succeed. I commend the ongoing efforts of our local education leaders, and I will continue to advocate for the needs of our EL students in Washington as well.”  

English learners are quickly becoming a substantial portion of the student population across the nation. They comprise almost ten percent of students in Rhode Island and approximately a quarter of students in Providence. In the last four years, South Kingstown’s EL population has tripled and Barrington’s EL population has doubled. This growth will only continue to expand the number of ELs falling behind their peers, particularly if the EL teacher shortage is not addressed. 

Langevin’s bipartisan legislation, the Reaching English Learners Act (H.R. 4838), aims to improve the instruction of ELs by providing funding to colleges to develop EL teacher training programs in conjunction with local schools. These training programs would ensure that future educators are equipped with the tools to meet the academic, social and emotional needs of ELs, promote family involvement in EL education, and identify and address the needs of ELs with disabilities.

Dr. Sarah Hesson, Carina Pinto de Chacon, and Suzanne Da Silva Jerzyk, three Rhode Island leaders in EL education, joined Langevin for the panel discussion to offer their perspectives on the crisis.

"English Language Learners, or emergent bilinguals as we say in the RIC TESL program to highlight students’ emerging bilingual proficiencies, are a group of learners that have long been due greater access to an equitable education,” said Dr. Sarah Hesson, an Assistant Professor and the TESL Program Director at Rhode Island College. “One aspect of providing such an education is providing access to high quality, well-trained educators. In RIC’s TESL program, we offer on-campus classes as well as classes in partner districts to continue to build the number of highly trained ESL and bilingual educators in RI, and are exploring new initiatives to specifically attract educators of color to these fields as well. When Congressman Langevin’s bill passes, we plan to apply for the funds offered to bolster and expand these critical initiatives."

“I was excited to participate in this panel discussion to share my personal and professional experiences around EL needs,” said Carina Pinto de Chacon, Assistant Principal at the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex in Providence. “It is our collective responsibility to advocate, educate and empower our students and families. I want to thank Congressman Langevin for his continued efforts to close the achievement gap amongst English Learners. We must change the narrative; our state and nation can do better.”

“I was incredibly excited to be a part of a conversation that is so vital to not only the future of our state, but the future of this country,” said Suzanne Da Silva Jerzyk, an ESL Teacher at Cranston Public Schools. “I am grateful to Congressman Langevin for taking the time to listen and be a part of a much needed and incredibly important dialogue.”

The panel was also joined by Antranik Antranik and Daniela Acarapi, two former Rhode Island EL students who shared their unique experiences in navigating the public school system.

“Right after I heard about the opportunity to be a panelist in this discussion at RIC, I immediately felt grateful for the opportunity to share my story,” said Daniela Acarapi, a student at North Providence High School. “EL students often do not get a chance to talk about their challenging experience after moving to America. I am extremely grateful for Congressman Langevin and all those who take the time to gain deep insight about this issue. EL students should feel that they have a voice in America.”