Leah Leonard, ENL teacher at Southold Elementary School, stands in front of about 20 Spanish-speaking parents in the school cafeteria. Their children are seated at a separate table in the back of the room, scribbling wildly on Christmas-themed coloring pages and chatting with their peers in Spanish.
Fellow ENL teacher Christopher Ruggi pulls up a website, Raz-Kids, on the projector pointed behind Ms. Leonard. Speaking Spanish, she tells the audience in that it’s time to begin.
“The school pays for many websites that you can use at home with your child,” Ms. Leonard says in Spanish. “One website that we use a lot in class, specifically with the children, uses both languages … Raz-Kids? Does anyone know it?”
Ms. Leonard looks around the room. One mother raises her hand. “Woohoo, one person!” she cheers, briefly switching to English. She continues to talk about the website in Spanish.
Through online tools like Raz-Kids — a digital library of English and Spanish books for children — some Spanish-speaking parents are finding innovative ways to help their children learn a new language.
Approximately 20 parents attended Thursday’s Hispanic Parents Meeting, a bi-monthly gathering in Spanish. Teachers presented online programs used in classrooms that can be used at home for learning purposes. The meetings, which have taken place since the group’s founding in September 2017, are led by Ms. Leonard and Mr. Ruggi.
According to state data, 7.63 percent of people in Southold speak a non-English language. The most effective way for students to learn English is by using the language, Ms. Leonard said.
“As much as we can get them to have that [language] connection at home, too, is important,” she said. “Even if the parents can’t sit with them and read a book in English, this website can read the book to them in English.”
According to the New York State Education Department, the district is 25.3 percent Latino or Hispanic, an increase from 21 percent of the population in 2016.
“The Spanish-speaking community is a growing population out here,” Mr. Ruggi said. “We’re welcoming them and encouraging them to come, sharing information with them and trying to get them involved — which really helps the students.”
Ms. Leonard said all of the general school information documents sent home to parents is in English and Spanish, but she feels it’s essential to go the extra mile for the Spanish-speaking parents in the district because it impacts students who are learning English.
“It’s important to have that face-to-face contact,” she said. “At school every day, they’re working hard to keep focused, and if they realize, ‘Hey, Mom came to that meeting with me, supporting me learning English’ — they’re really going to push themselves.”
The district uses Remind, an online messaging system. When an administrator sends an important message to parents in English, it’s automatically translated into Spanish for some parents.
Ms. Leonard said several teachers use a similar app, ClassDojo, which allows teachers to send direct messages to parents in English which is automatically translated into Spanish. Parents can then respond in Spanish and teachers will receive the message in English.
“We’re just taking away anything that might prevent a parent from reaching out about their child and sharing that information with them,” she said.
At the meeting, Ms. Leonard also mentioned engageny.org, a Spanish and English state curriculum guide for all students, and colorincolorado.org, which provides information for English Language Learners and their families. The website focuses on helping ELL students succeed in school.
Other meetings have addressed how to improve at-home writing, connecting with teachers and questions to ask during parent-teacher conferences, Mr. Ruggi said.
Ms. Leonard said it’s her duty as an ENL teacher to advocate for students and parents.
“We, as a community, are just building more programs around everyone to make it more inclusive,” she said. “It just goes to show you, you open the doors and people will come.”
Photo caption: Teachers Leah Leonard and Christopher Ruggi explain the programs to the parents. (Kate Nalepinski photo)