Freeport High tackles online obstacles

By Damali Ramirez

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Freeport High School students heard a high-pitched school bell ringing when class started. Now they hear the Google Meets sound when a new participant joins a virtual session. Students no longer walk the halls between classes; they switch tabs to enter a new video call.

As the Covid-19 pandemic shifted schools to online learning, new obstacles such as a lack of Internet resources and online engagement rose for students, particularly English language learners.

According to NPR, one out of every ten public school students in the United States is learning how to speak English. Statistically, ENL (English New Language) students struggle the most academically because they have little or no access to quality resources or instruction tailored to their needs. The pandemic further widens technological and learning barriers for students who have long demonstrated achievement gaps.

Freeport High School’s ENL Department, however, has found solutions to ensure students receive equal interactive and innovative online learning.

Nearly one-sixth of Freeport High School students are learning English as a New Language, which presents challenges for educators in the new hybrid learning environment, in which the students learn part of the time in school and part of the time at home. Illustration by Damali Ramirez/Long Island Advocate

“Freeport was ahead of the ball game. We have had Chromebooks for a few years, and we’re already on Google Classroom,” ENL Department Chair Luz McCaw said. “The teachers were already trained years ago on how to use Google classroom and post material.”

In 2017, Freeport Public Schools received $5.9 million under the Smart Schools Bond Act, a statewide initiative to finance educational technology and improve students’ learning and opportunities. The district was also awarded a $200,000 grant from the Sprint Foundation’s 1Million Project to provide high-speed Internet access for any high school student who might not have it at home. If a student loses a Chromebook or the computer stops working, there is typically an available Chromebook for that student.

Before March, ENL teacher Lashonda Gardenhire didn’t know which students had Internet at home. Previously students were allowed to do homework in the school building. Students could stay late, do homework during their lunch period, outside of school in a public library or at a Starbucks.

“I think the pandemic brought to light new issues of inequity,” she said. “Once the world shut down, that brought to light some of my best students who had previously submitted stuff inside and outside of school stopped submitting assignments.”

Freeport High School officials said they are closely monitoring English as a New Language students to ensure they have equal access to the technological resources needed for remote learning. Photo by Damali Ramirez/Long Island Advocate

Freeport identified students without Internet access by sending out surveys and robocalls to tackle the inequity. Afterward, they bought hot spots and gave students access to hot spots. McCaw, for instance, kept a list of her students without WiFi. Although this was a previous practice, the school increased its efforts, so no students would be left behind.

Roughly 15 percent of Freeport High School students are English Language Learners.

Anthony Murray, director of mathematics and technology, said, “We are concerned that closures would further widen achievement gaps for our most fragile students, including English language learners, students living in poverty, and students in special education. One goal of the Freeport Public Schools is to reach academic stabilization for all students and specifically for groups of students who have always demonstrated achievement gaps.”

Between March and now

The foreign language and ENL departments have long had online curricula. In the past, teachers assigned worksheets and homework from online textbooks and taught their students how to log in with user IDs and familiarized them with the platform, so the online shift didn’t drastically affect the ENL students. Teachers, however, had to create a new interactive curriculum. Teachers couldn’t assign the same two online homework assignments and had to find new ways to engage with students.

The biggest issue that the ENL department faced was getting students to participate and join Google Meets. Back in March, many students were under the impression that they would return in two weeks and didn’t have to do the online assignments. Students were signing in inconsistently, and teachers like Gardenhire were frequently explaining to parents the importance of signing into class. The longer students stayed home, the more they began to accept their new reality.

Freeport High School is currently following a hybrid learning model. Students have the option to attend school on Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Some students wouldn’t show their faces or would get distracted by background noises at home. Students also became distracted by siblings and parents coming in and out of the house.

ENL teacher Potoula Konstantinopoulos has her students call on one another to increase class participation. “Instead of me calling on every kid, I have every kid call on a buddy in the classroom. They never say no to their friends,” she said.

Her method was effective as she watched participation increase, and students started to help and motivate one another. The technique also ensures hybrid and remote students are not overlooked.

“I think you have to be creative. There’s a lot of technology resources, so choosing resources that require a student to interact with one another I think is beneficial,” Gardenhire said. “Freeport is really collaborative; the librarians will find new websites or new platforms, and people are good at sending out emails to staff for online resources.”

Library media specialists Rose Luna and Paula Ennis said it was important to share resources with teachers and students to have a full range of experiences available for students. They ensure students have access to print and ebooks, online databases for research, and tutorials in English and Spanish to help students and teachers use Google Translate. Luna and Ennis also assist parents through Parent University workshops in English and Spanish on resources, technology, and digital citizenship.

McCaw and Gardenhire both integrate virtual field trips in their lessons as a creative way to talk about a subject matter. Recently, McCaw had her students attend the Cleveland Museum of Art virtually and saw student participation increase as they learned from new faces.

“There are still some kids that are struggling a little bit. Some of them feel that they’re on the computer too long, but as we move forward, students are becoming more interactive,” McCaw said.

Freeport officials said students are adjusting to the new normal of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Damali Ramirez/Long Island Advocate

Konstantinopoulos said her students often tell her how much they miss school and seeing her in person. Other students reported they learn better when they’re in person because they’re so used to it. Like McCaw and Gardenhire, Konstantinopoulos tries to give her students breaks from the computer, as certain students have reported the laptop makes them tired and gives them migraines.

Closing language and technology barriers

In 1993, Freeport School District implemented its Dual Language Program to promote English-Spanish proficiency for all students. The program allows students to participate from kindergarten until 12th grade and encourages them to get their New York State Seal of Biliteracy. ENL students need to get a 75 or higher in the English Regents to receive their seal of biliteracy. On its website, Freeport School District translates all its materials to Spanish. There are tutorials on how to use Google, resources, and important announcements for students and parents.

Freeport High School also purchased new technology and cameras to help remote students feel as if they’re in school. There are cameras and microphones in classrooms, so it’s easier for students to hear and see their teachers there.

“It is our goal to turn what has been a very disruptive health crisis into an equal academic opportunity for all of our students,” Murray said.

The lowest level of ENL students come in four days a week for additional support that they might need from teachers. The department identifies the students based on their previous years’ test scores and figures out who needs the most support.

“When they do come into the building, they feel like they’re getting that support. ENL and special education students benefit more if they’re in the building and their teachers are there,” Gardenhire said.

When a student needed technical help, it was easier for teachers to show what buttons to press in person. Gardenhire, though, said the process of trying to explain to a student how to download an app or add an extension is longer. She relies heavily on Lightspeed’s Relay Classroom to help remote students when they face technical difficulties.

Lightspeed’s Relay Classroom is a monitoring software that allows teachers to facilitate, manage, and assist students with Internet activities. Teachers can use the program to help students with technical difficulties online and in person, as they can’t approach students too close as they did in the past.

Although the adjustments have been difficult, ENL department faculty say students are adjusting to the new normal.

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