(Facebook photo.)

Growing up speaking Spanish and English in the home has proven its many advantages for senior high school student Venus Rodriguez.

Throughout her four years at Hamilton West High School, she has noticed an increase in the number of students that do not speak English as a first language, especially Hispanic students.

Rodriguez has noticed these students—classified as English Language Learners (ELL) by schools—have an additional barrier to overcome in order to be part of the student body at large, due to language differences. However, being bilingual makes it easier for Rodriguez to communicate with many of the ELL students.

“I speak Spanish sometimes to them to help them out but I also speak English so that they can learn the language,” she says.

The need for bilingual students like Rodriguez has become vital, especially as the Hamilton Township School District continues to serve as a microcosm for a national trend. School districts across the country have started to adapt in order to accommodate the fastest growing demographic of students—those whose first language is one other than English.

As overall school enrollment in Hamilton continues to decline, the ELL population in the township’s schools has increased 76.4% between June 2015 and October 2018.

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“This rapidly growing student demographic is so disproportionately underserved by the public school system, the number of programs and dollars spent per ELL student are in decline, even as the number of ELL students has skyrocketed,” according to a 2015 report published by the NEA.

By law, all schools are required to integrate these students in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program so that language barriers will not prevent equal opportunities in their education.

New Jersey schools must apply for a waiver for an ESL program once there are at least 20 or more students that speak a certain language across the district.

HTSD curriculum and instruction director Anthony Scotto assumed his role in 2017, and said he saw the need to focus immediately on ELLs.

Between 25-28% of the ELL population in Hamilton was Hispanic in 2018. The second most common non-English language within the district is Haitian Creole, following Spanish. Nationwide, it has been reported that 76.6% out of 4.9 million ELL students in America’s schools spoke Spanish according to the National Center for Education Statistics as of 2016.

In Hamilton, ELL students typically have one period of ESL everyday apart of their daily class schedule to help students transition to English, Scotto said. The ESL period is at the beginning of the day for students. In elementary school, an ESL period typically lasts for 30 minutes. In grades 6-12, an ESL period is typically 40 minutes.

“The staff are trained in helping students understand, build background knowledge, and support learning in other classes,” Scotto said. “We’re helping the students with academic vocabulary.”

Depending on the level of support needed, ESL teachers will go into class with another teacher to provide assistance to a student, or sometimes a student may be pulled out of class by a teacher to work with them in a smaller group. Hamilton’s 23 schools are now served by 35 interpreters and 17 ESL teachers.

There is one teacher per middle school and elementary school with some teachers sharing a couple of the schools. There are two teachers for each high school besides Steinert, Scotto says, which has a lower enrollment.

The district has also made arrangements to provide information for parents in multiple languages.

“Sometimes the students are fluent in English but the parents are not,” Scotto says. “We’ve been good about understanding the need to translate documents for them.”

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There are translators on hand for an array of languages such as Haitian Creole, Chinese, Hindi, Punjabi and Arabic.

“I have not seen a difficulty in communicating,” Scotto said. “We have after school workshops for staff that we teach different phrases in other languages and bilingual staff that work in our office. We give everyone the personal touch that they need.”

Out of Hamilton’s population of 87,557, 21.2% are foreign born, with the highest percentage of residents from Latin America, according to censusreporter.org. In the school district, 78.4% of students are white, 11.8% black, 10.9% Hispanic and 3.3% Asian.

Spanish—the most common spoken language in the township following English—is spoken in the home by 21% of residents between the ages of 5-17.

Steinert High School vice principal Lauren Brazil says that a variety of languages and dialects can be heard throughout the hallways of the school.

“We have a lot of representation at Steinert of a bunch of different languages so it’s nice,” she says. “At the other two high schools there’s more Haitian Creole.”

Haitian Creole ranks ninth most common language spoken by ELL students nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Spanish, Chinese and Arabic are the most common overall.

“We do not feel that they are at a disadvantage to other students,” Scotto says of the ELL students. “In a public school, it is our job to educate everyone and the focus on equity is very strong here in Hamilton. We’re very proud of our program, students, and the fact that we try to work towards it everyday.”

As the number of ELL students increases, so does the amount of students at the three Hamilton high schools that qualify for the NJ Seal of Biliteracy test, including Venus Rodriguez, the senior at Hamilton West.

The Seal of Biliteracy was an initiative started in California in 2011. In January 2016, New Jersey became the 17th state to implement a legislated statewide Seal of Biliteracy. By achieving the Seal of Biliteracy, students demonstrate that they are able to speak, read, comprehend and write in two or more languages at a high level of proficiency.

Hamilton West senior Nicole Pazmino earned the seal last year after achieving fluency in English, Spanish and Italian. Pazmino also has noticed an increase of ELL students at West, and said she has made an effort to include them.

“If I see someone speaking Spanish, I can join in and it wont feel weird,” she said. “It’s just another conversation.”

Pazmino said students of Hispanic heritage often socialize together, regardless of whether they are ELL or not, and that, the ELL students at Hamilton West have integrated themselves with the student body. The lifelong Hamilton resident comes from a family with roots in Ecuador.

Senior Noelle Muni is one of nine students at Steinert High School who passed the Seal of Biliteracy test and is now officially fluent in Spanish.

At Steinert, 122 students are eligible to take the Seal of Biliteracy test this year, a number that has increased from last year significantly, according to Brazil.

Muni, who started taking Spanish in eighth grade, is in peer leadership at Steinert and meets and works with the freshman once a week.

“There are a lot of freshmen that only speak Spanish,” Muni says. “It’s helpful because I can talk to them, and they feel included and know they have people they can talk to at Steinert.”

Students that qualify and have passed the seal of biliteracy in a variety of languages often act as a bridge to ELL students who are just beginning to learn English through the ESL program.

Scotto said the program also helps those enrolled in ELL, as a large number of ESL students qualified for the Seal of Biliteracy test in order to demonstrate their proficiency in English.

He says the school district’s efforts to aid ELL students go along with the district’s school theme this year; “Building a better tomorrow together.”