Before Hadi Ramos even walked through the classroom door on her first day at Southampton Elementary School, she felt lost — starting when a woman came up to her and said “Hi Hadi, my name is Ms. Wallen. I’m your first-grade teacher.” Hadi clutched the hand of her mother, who appeared equally puzzled. The Ramos family, originally from Mexico, spoke no English. A second teacher approached and repeated the introduction in Spanish. Hadi smiled, let go of her mother’s hand, and followed the teacher inside the classroom.
Fifteen years ago, Hadi was one of 32 students selected for the pilot class of what would become the Southampton School District’s Dual Language program. Participants in the six-year program — 50% English as a New Language (ENL) learners and 50% Spanish language learners — were taught all subjects in English and Spanish on alternating days.
By sixth grade, Hadi was reading at a seventh-grade level in English. She graduated in the top 10% of her class, having completed nine Advanced Placement courses.
She is one of Southampton’s success stories: a first-generation, low-income student who conquered her language barrier. “I honestly see Dual Language as a pillar of my identity at this point … it’s how I got here, ” said the 22-year-old, who graduated from Wesleyan University in June.
But for every Hadi, there are nine ENL students who do not meet the nuanced requirements or age cutoff to join the immersive program, according to a 2019 analysis of school district data. These other children, teachers say, are at risk of experiencing an isolated education.
A dedicated group of bilingual teachers has made grassroots efforts to bridge the gap, hoping that better integration at Southampton High School will help the town’s most vulnerable residents find opportunity and security over the long term.
Southampton’s image as a beach town for the wealthy and famous masks the reality that one in five permanent residents is Latino, often recent immigrants from Central America who work in the service industry. More than a quarter of the district’s students do not know English when they arrive, according to district data. They are then classified as ENL students or SIFE, the acronym for Students with Interrupted Formal Education.
In the AP classrooms, Key Club meetings and varsity locker rooms, however, the population is stubbornly white. This bothered Rosalie Carcama and Carlos Alfaro, two ENL teachers in the district. One day after school, as they lamented the lack of Latinos represented on the soccer field, they decided to sign up as track and soccer coach, respectively.
Almost immediately, they saw a surge in sign-ups from ENL students. Soon more bilingual staff volunteered to lead extracurriculars. “It has had a network effect, and now we have more people that look like them pushing them to join these sports,” Alfaro said. “The change is these kids are now part of the school and part of the team.” While the effect on the students’ academic growth may be indirect, he said, it’s important nonetheless.
Carcama and Alfaro eventually met with Ana Martinez, the district’s Director of Dual Language and ENL programs. Together they lobbied for new bilingual hires and found the administration to be receptive. Recent hirings of bilingual earth science, math and specialized language teachers have provided a more “normal” academic environment, the teachers said. For the first time, ENL and SIFE students had different teachers for their subjects, like most English-speaking students, rather than staying in the same classroom all day.
Within the program, there are wide variations in levels of education and language. “We have had students who are 17, 18 years old who read at a third-grade level,” Alfaro said. “This makes mass teaching difficult when all of these students are on different trajectories and points in their academic journeys.” New hires also allow for curricula to be more tailored to academic levels, which speeds up the learning process.
Test scores rose as a result. In 2020, there were nine ENL learners who took the English Language Arts assessment, Martinez said, and 89% of those students scored at or above grade level.
However, learning content in Spanish cuts into the time ENL students have to learn English, along with the social integration that proficiency brings. The ENL and non-ENL populations rarely mingle outside school hallways and the cafeteria — and even there, interaction is minimal.
“It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a major step in the right direction,” Martinez said.
After more pushing by the ad-hoc coalition, the administration expanded Alfaro’s position to include duties as an ENL guidance counselor. His fluency in Spanish, life experience as a former ENL learner himself and pre-established trust with these students made him the perfect candidate. He knows some students are in Southampton without a parent. They have to pay for rent, figure out transportation to school, and feed and clothe themselves. Many balance homework with full- and part-time jobs.
On Wednesdays from 5 to 9 p.m., Alfaro hosts office hours for parents to discuss their child’s education and get the parents more involved in the school. “My biggest role for a long time was to just keep these kids in school, get them to buy into the concept of an education,” he said. “It is definitely a step by step process to get them to buy into institutional education or to even step foot into the school.”
A crucial recent addition, led by Martinez, has been the Bilingual Afterschool Academy. The state of New York requires every student to complete 44 academic units to graduate. ENL and SIFE students often need more than four years in high school to meet the requirements. The new academy has helped accelerate this process for students and mitigate fears.
The new support includes bilingual staff, non-bilingual teachers and Teaching Assistants, all working as volunteers. For teachers like Carcama, the time sacrifice to volunteer felt like nothing compared to the work and responsibilities her students have. “They work at the same time they go to school. They have families to provide for, families to send money back to,” she said, “and so sometimes they won’t get their work in or the only time we can help them is at 8 p.m. at night, if they ask us to stay after hours we do it.”
But teachers who work with ENL students on a daily basis still don’t think the solutions are sufficient. For Martinez, success would mean teaching students in an integrated setting “where all of our teachers have an understanding of how to teach ENL students, accepting and embracing the nuances of it.”
The process can’t be forced, Martinez noted, and she hopes that the New York State Board of Regents will soon require school districts to adopt diversity initiatives. In her district, Martinez assembled a task force with 30 stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, administrators, social workers and guidance counselors, to generate plans for a policy and formal training.
“I told the superintendent it’s good that we are doing this. but if I am doing it I am doing it right and I need the resources,” Martinez said. “I am not going to just be this brown-faced administrator that allows you to check the box with and say here, go.”
For Martinez and Alfaro, the battle for resources feels like an exercise in empathy on behalf of the larger Southampton community. The district must stretch a limited budget across a diverse population of student needs; a dollar towards ENL is a dollar that could have been spent on special education or more guidance counselors. In the eyes of some administrators, funding the ENL population requires a resource shift away from the highly supported white student body.
But Alfaro said that, more and more, as the Spanish-speaking population continues to grow and the school becomes better at building bilingual bridges, the barriers between students are coming down and the students are beginning to feel part of the community.
“The only time you need to feel welcomed is when you are not part of something, and now these students don’t feel that way,” Alfaro said. They just are Southampton.”