By Kaitlyn Krasselt, The Hour

NORWALK — When Oscar Cortez moved to Norwalk in 2013 and enrolled in high school, he worried about all the normal things new high school students worry about.

But he also faced a hurdle most students do not: He never learned English in his native country, El Salvador.

“I never had to think about it before,” Cortez said. “Going to school, I never thought about the language, and I was scared to come here because I didn’t speak the language.”

Now, as he prepares to graduate in the spring, with ambitions to go to college, join the military and one day become a police officer, his English is near fluent and he no longer takes English Language Learner courses.

Cortez credits the English Language Learners Program through Norwalk Public Schools for his success, as do many others. The district has seen an influx of ELL students in the past five years, adding nearly 200 more in the past year alone.

“When I started I wasn’t confident at all,” Cortez said. “I have friends who started ELL at the same time as me and they are still shy to speak, but I’m not. I don’t really care if I mess up, that’s how I learn.”

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Speaking up

Norwalk Public Schools has seen an influx of English Language Learners in the past five years, adding nearly 200 more in the past year alone.

2011-12: 1,292

2012-13: 1,304

2013-14: 1,294

2014-15: 1,572

2015-16: 1,585

2016-17: 1,683

Superintendent Steven Adamowski called Norwalk the “district of choice” for ELL students, citing high test scores and success among the district’s ELL students. Several have even become valedictorians in recent years.

In the budget request approved by the Board of Education last week, additional funding next year will be used to bring in more staff to support the influx of students, who cost about 30 percent more to educate than English-speaking students, Adamowski said..

As of October 2017, the district had about 1,800 ELL students, up from roughly 1,200 in 2011. That’s roughly 16 percent of the student population, and nearly 40 percent speak a second language even if they’re not English Language Learners. The students come from 40 different countries, and speak 36 languages, according to district data.

Helene Becker, instructional specialist for English Language Learners, said in recent years the district has seen an increase in the number of unaccompanied youth moving to Norwalk from countries like Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela and El Salvador, many of whom have a limited education in their native language, let alone English.

“Those countries are very violent and students have come here risking a lot but their situations are so dire that they’ve had to leave their countries,” Becker said. “We started to get these students probably in 2013, and then by 2015 we had so many of them that we had to develop a special program just for them at the high school level because a lot of them — because of the disruption in their countries and the violence — a lot of them had been out of school for several years and just haven’t had good educational opportunities for many years, so we developed a special program just for them so that we could catch them up and they could graduate.”

Becker said the majority of ELL students actually begin in kindergarten. Often these students speak another language at home, and then learn English when they begin school.

Becker, who has overseen the ELL program since 2006, said the program has become a model for other districts.

“As the program grows, we’ve had to make adjustments to meet the needs of the students and we have done that and the superintendent has been supportive of that, and has helped me with additional staff as needed, and we try to keep up with the latest research and materials so that we can give our students the best,” Becker said. “I think we’re doing a nice job for the kids with a lot of work and effort and support.”

About seven years ago, the district also started a summer program for ELL students, under Becker’s direction. The program, which started with just 30 students, is an intensive six-week program to accelerate students and better prepare them for the school year. The program has grown to 175 students, and Becker said she expects the coming summer to enroll even more students.

“The goal is to accelerate students,” Becker said. “It’s not a remedial program. It’s to give the students a step up so they can learn more English, more quickly and graduate on time. We’re always trying to help them so that they can graduate and get to college or a career.”

Becker also cited the ELL Welcome Center as a highlight of the program she is particularly proud of. Located at city hall, families visit the welcome center before they even enroll in classes. Equipped with bilingual facilitators and friendly environment, Becker said the goal is to make families feel comfortable about enrolling in Norwalk schools.

At the welcome center, students take placement tests in English as well as their native language, and receive workbooks and gifts. Becker said often the entire family visits the welcome center, spilling out into the hallways.

“We really try to make them feel like we’re happy that they’re here,” Becker said.; 203-842-2563; @kaitlynkrasselt

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