Supporting Young ELLs' Success During COVID-19 (Part 1)

Educators at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, MI

Learn how an elementary school serving a high number of newcomer ELLs has engaged and supported students and families throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staff from Salina Elementary in interview with Colorín Colorado. Clockwise from top left: Afrah Saleh, Nada Darwish, Susan Stanley, and Taqwaa Mohamed.

At Salina Elementary School, a Title I school in Dearborn, Michigan, more than 90% of the students are English language learners (ELLs). Many are newcomers who have recently arrived in the U.S., and for those who have come during COVID-19, the challenges of adjusting to a new country have only intensified.

The Salina staff has actively worked to support their newcomers throughout the pandemic, drawing upon some critical components of the school's approach: family and community partnerships, collaboration among staff, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) programming, and strong partnerships with the district and teacher's union.

Throughout the pandemic, Colorín Colorado has had the opportunity to check in with Salina staff at different points and we have compiled some of their successes, challenges, and lessons learned to help other schools brainstorm for the upcoming summer and fall. Salina, which has been recognized with multiple honors, is also featured in our award-winning documentary You Are Welcome Here, available below.

Special thanks to the Salina Elementary educators who contributed to Part 1 of this series:

  • Nada Darwish, English Language Development Specialist
  • Taqwaa Mohamed, Kindergarten Teacher
  • Afrah Saleh, English Language Development Specialist
  • Susan Stanley, Salina Elementary Principal

To learn more about hands-on learning at Salina through STEAM and the school garden, see Part 2 of this series, Supporting ELL Success with STEAM and Hands-On Learning.

Introduction: Salina Elementary

Salina Elementary School is located in the south end of Dearborn, a city that neighbors Detroit. Its neighborhood has long been home to immigrants who have come to work in the factories and plants in the Detroit area. Most of the families who attend Salina currently are from Yemen, and many have come during the country's long civil war.

Increasingly, the students are arriving with less and less formal education. "In the past, when we received new students, more of them had more of an education," explains English Language Development (ELD) specialist Afrah Saleh. "They came knowing at least how to read and write in Arabic, which made it easier for them to grasp the English language. Although we do still have students that come reading and writing, many more students are coming into the United States without even being able to read and write in their own language. We've seen a huge shift."

In addition, many of the students have experienced different kinds of trauma, such as exposure to violence and fighting in their country, displacement, hardship, and family separation.

Many students at the elementary school have older siblings at the middle school across the street, Salina Intermediate. The two schools in effect create a K-8 campus and share numerous family engagement efforts such as ESL classes, citizenship classes, parenting groups, and family activities that children of all ages can attend.

More Than a Warm Welcome

Learn more about Salina in an article about the school featured in the AFT's American Educator.

Both schools have Arabic-speaking family liaisons who work closely with the community, as well as numerous educators and staff members who speak conversational Arabic. The schools also collaborate closely in terms of professional development and training for staff in areas such as language development, culturally responsive instruction, and trauma-informed practice.

It is worth nothing that these initiatives have received strong support district-wide from leadership, including Dearborn's ELD Director Rose Aldubaily, EL Coordinator May Mosallam, and Superintendent Glenn Maleyko. You can see interview clips from these Dearborn leaders below.

Summer Programs During COVID-19

Summer 2020

In the summer of 2020, a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the staff at Salina was faced with the question of how to engage its newcomer students, some of whom had arrived shortly before schools stopped in-person learning in March. As the school year wound down, the staff collaborated with the district's ELD department on possible options. With the department's guidance and support, the staff decided to organize a virtual summer program for some of its newcomer students of highest need. The program lasted for 5 weeks, with students meeting in small groups for 3 days a week. The classes focused on intensive reading instruction through small group work, oral language development, and alphabet and letter practice.

In addition, the school provided all materials that the students needed, which proved to be a wise investment, as well as a time saver, according to ELD specialist Nada Darwish. "We learned that we really need to put tangible things in our ELLs' hands, the books, the pencils, the crayons — everything they need — to succeed. I think it made a huge difference having all the material that we needed. Every time they came to the class, they had it by them, so no one was looking for things while we were teaching."

Building relationships

The staff intentionally decided to organize the classes into very small groups to get more interaction with the students. Principal Susan Stanley notes, "It was more beneficial to meet with those students in a very small group every day, with less time, than to do a bigger group for a longer period. That personal time really benefited our students." Social-emotional support and check-ins were also an important part of the program, and one of the benefits of this support was that students and families felt more connected to the teachers, both in the summer and later in the fall. "There was such a great sense of community and trust through this small group online instruction," says Principal Stanley.

This was especially important given how much upheaval many of the students in the summer program had already experienced in their young lives. Kindergarten teacher Taqwaa Mohamed notes, "We found that keeping lines of communication open was critical to help them feel safety and consistency, especially because many of our students have experienced trauma and have not come to the U.S. as a family unit. Being cut off from school and the teacher they saw every day was another trauma for them to face. It was such an important role," she continues, "letting them know that, 'We're here for you. We didn't go anywhere, we didn't disappear.' Because for a five-year-old, how traumatic is that to be cut off from someone that they saw every single day? And we saw that in all the kids. When we would call them, that's what they wanted. They just wanted to know, 'When am I going to get to see you again?'"

Keeping these lines of communication open was something that school leaders emphasized from the beginning of the shutdown. "When Principal Stanley called us back to school for a meeting the first time, the most important thing we talked about was keeping an open line of communication with the students," Ms. Mohamed recalls. "Just letting them know you're there for them, that they can contact you when you're needed."

Student and family engagement

As it turned out, these relationships had another practical benefit — they made it easier to engage with families before and during the program. The staff lay the groundwork by calling parents to tell them about the summer program, what it would mean for them, and what the schedule would be. They also ensured that students had the log-in info they needed, a quiet place to work, and any materials they needed for the day's lesson. The teachers guided the families through practice log-ins and often worked with older siblings, who were designated as the point person for ensuring that their younger siblings would get online at the right time.

"When a student wouldn't log on time or turn their homework in, then you'd want to pause and say, 'What is stopping them? What can I do to help you?'" says Ms. Saleh. "Showing families that we are stakeholders in their child's education makes it possible to help them help us." Since most children at Salina had parents and/or siblings at home with them during the day, the school found a lot of support at home and sometimes would see multiple family members sitting with their children. "One benefit was that we saw that the parents were also learning," says Ms. Saleh, "which was so rewarding. So when we heard the parents reciting or trying to read the books as their children are reading it, we realized that we were not just teaching the child now; we were actually teaching the entire family with the online learning.”

Teachers also stayed in regular contact with families once the program began, reminding parents right before the start time with calls or texts when possible; those who didn't have time to send those reminders because of back-to-back classes continued working with the parents and siblings who could help log in when needed. In addition, the school expanded their use of WhatsApp and created parent group chats, used WhatsApp and FaceTime for quick check-ins, and delivered books to families' front porches.

Summer Program 2021

Based on the success of the 2020 summer program, the school is now looking ahead to their upcoming summer program, Camp Salina Discovery. This program will continue to focus on small group instruction for newcomers. The school is planning 90-minute blocks of ELA for both their newcomers and other students. And this year, the upcoming summer program will integrate language arts and STEAM instruction.

For example, students will plan, make observations, describe, and then summarize their learning in STEAM and math classes. Principal Stanley explains, "The students begin their day with a cabin meeting. This fifteen-minute check-in with a homeroom teacher sets the plans for the day. Students rotate with their cohort to literacy, math, art, garden, and Camp Invention. At the end of the day students return back to their ‘cabin’ to write a letter home in their journal highlighting two or three learning statements.”

The staff at Salina are excited to bring a program based on STEAM to their students after the past difficult year. "STEAM-based activities are integral to closing the equity gap for our EL students," says Principal Stanley. "The power to innovate, create, hypothesize, and collaborate does not require the same level of navigating the nuances of new languages that traditional learning requires. With intentional instruction, language barriers are erased. Children spend time exploring, questioning and making meaning through discovery and collaborating with their peers. Language development is a natural byproduct of this type of learning."

The program is being supported by the ESSER Fund, established as part of the Education Stabilization Fund in the CARES Act 1 to address the impact that the Novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has had, and continues to have, on elementary students. According to Principal Stanley, state guidelines included additional money for "innovative programs," and Dearborn Public Schools applied for this grant. She explains, "The district challenged school leaders to come up with programs which meet those standards. Salina Elementary will be collaborating with Camp Invention, an award-winning National Inventors Hall of Fame program whose cost had previously put the program out of reach."

In addition, Principal Stanley explains the key role of collaboration in their planning. "Our teachers are currently working in PLCs to identify the essential standards they are most concerned about. Which are those standards students were not able to achieve for this grade level in order to be successful for next year? They are then breaking down those standards into measurable targets. Those targets will be assessed daily and the lessons which go with those targets will be created around our STEAM classes. It will be about making everything relevant and everything purposeful."

Lessons learned

When asked to reflect on the biggest lessons learned from all of these initiatives, a few themes emerged across staff responses. For one, staff and school leaders point to the critical role of relationships with students and families. Ms. Darwish urges teachers to "start slow to go fast. We need to slow down and take care of students as a whole."

Principal Stanley echoes this idea with her comment, "There is no shortcut to this. Nothing else is going to happen unless those kids feel safe and secure and loved, so the best way to help them is to slow down."

Perhaps most importantly, the successes of these efforts have reminded the educators what was possible during a very challenging time. "We were reminded as educators to never give up on these students," says Ms. Saleh. "If we invest our time and our energy and our efforts in these students, they will succeed and they will come through. When we put our heart and soul into these students, they know that we're behind them. They know that someone cares about them. And so this gives them the motivation and the drive to do their very best."

Videos from Dearborn, MI

You can learn more about Salina in our award-winning film You Are Welcome Here, produced in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers. The film also includes a section on Salina's hands-on learning activities and STEAM expo.

You can also see the film with Arabic subtitles, a preview version, and additional videos from Salina in our related resource collection.

You Are Welcome Here: Supporting the Social and Emotional Health of Newcomer Immigrants

A warm welcome for immigrant families in the front office

Norieah Ahmed, the Child Accounting Secretary at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, MI, talks about her role in welcoming newcomer immigrant families to the school from the moment they walk in the door.

Looking at the whole child: Conversations with an award-winning social worker

Meet Dr. Rola Bazzi-Gates, a special education coordinator for Dearborn Public Schools and Michigan's 2016 Social Worker of the Year. Learn how her personal experience living through conflict helped prepare her to support students and families today.

Dearborn Superintendent Glenn Maleyko talks about teaching Iraqi refugees

Superintendent Glenn Maleyko (Dearborn Public Schools) recalls an experience as a first-year teacher in coming across an Iraqi student's disturbing journal entry.

ELD Director Rose Aldubaily: ELL leadership in Dearborn, MI

In this interview, Dearborn's ELD Director Rose Aldubaily discusses the strategies staff are using to support newcomers and her own story of attending and teaching in Dearborn schools.

ELD Coordinator May Mosallam: Collaborating for ELL Success Dearborn, MI

In this interview, Dearborn's EL Coordinator May Mosallam highlights the important role that collaboration, training, and district support play in EL instruction.




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