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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Learning English a priority for hundreds of recent immigrants to Norwich, New London area

    Teacher Angel Martinez high-fives Elsy Salas, after she answered a question correctly, during a Families Learning English adult education class for parents at John B. Stanton School in Norwich on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Teacher Bryn Clayton, center, works with students, from left, Vogly Tham, Phalande Avril, and Watson Senatus, all originally from Haiti, on medical terms during a low-intermediate English for Speakers of Other Languages class Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024 at the Norwich Adult Education Center. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Teacher Angel Martinez and students look for a book in the library during a Families Learning English class for parents at John B. Stanton School in Norwich on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Elsy Salas, originally from Peru, writes animal names on a board during a Families Learning English class for parents at John B. Stanton School in Norwich on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Friends, from left, Watson Senatus, Vogly Tham and Phalande Avril, all originally from Haiti, sort through flash cards at a workshop on medical terms during a low-intermediate English for Speakers of Other Languages class Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024 at the Norwich Adult Education Center. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Editor’s note: In this two-day series, we profile people who have recently moved to the Norwich and New London area eager to learn English and better their lives, and the professionals dedicated to teaching English to school-age children and adults.

    Hundreds of newly arrived immigrant families have settled in southeastern Connecticut over the past two years, their numbers evident in dramatic increases in students of all grade levels needing to learn English in local schools.

    New arrivals to our area have come from different countries, including Haiti, Peru, Guatemala and Nicaragua, but many of them were not among the thousands of asylum seekers arriving at the southern U.S. border. There is no evidence that buses of migrants are dropping off occupants in southeastern Connecticut directly, human services and immigrant advocacy officials said.

    “We can’t pinpoint the reason, because we can’t legally ask people,” said Luz Rivera, multilingual learning director for Norwich Public Schools. “But most of it has to do with the most common factor, safety. They are seeking safety from where they are coming from. Some of it is financial situations. They would like to have a better chance. Some of it is education, and some of it might be in general, seeking better opportunities and better quality of life.”

    Cinfilice Cadet, 33, said he came to Norwich from Haiti seven months ago under a decades-old U.S. immigration program known as humanitarian parole, which was extended to Haitian citizens last January due to dangerous conditions in that country. He joined many family members already living in the area. Cadet, who lives with his cousin and works at the Amazon distribution center in Hartford, has applied for humanitarian parole to bring his son, Leo, to Norwich. He left his 6-year-old son in Haiti with the boy’s grandmother.

    “I miss him very much,” Cadet said.

    Other students interviewed found different paths to southeastern Connecticut, some with family members, their spouses or even alone.

    Freddy Lobos, 20, left Guatemala at age 15 in 2018 and rode buses and trucks for 12 days to the U.S.-Mexican border as an unaccompanied minor. He turned himself in to Homeland Security officers and was sent with other unaccompanied teens to a shelter in Florida before receiving a temporary juvenile visa and connected with the father he had never seen, living in Virginia. From there, he and his aunt drove to Norwich to stay.

    The new arrivals are called multilingual learners, an acknowledgment in national education parlance that some speak multiple languages, but not English.

    Norwich Public Schools ended the 2020-21 school year with 638 multilingual learners in grades kindergarten through eight. By June 2022, the district had 675. Norwich MLL ranks swelled to 804 by mid-January 2024. Three weeks later, the number was up to 839.

    Rivera projected Norwich could have 900 MLL students by June.

    School-age children and their parents, too, are eager to learn English. Norwich Adult Education Director John Glover said enrollment in English learning classes ballooned from 200 in fall of 2022 to 312 last fall. By December 2023, the adult education program had a waiting list of more than 200 students.

    Norwich Adult Education added three afternoon classes, asking morning or evening teachers to take on additional classes to accommodate about 70 students from the waiting list that started in November.

    English language program leader Katrina Bercaw greeted the newest adult students at the door for the first day of class Feb. 12. The beginner English class filled fast, while the advanced class had fewer students.

    Norwich Free Academy, the high school that serves Norwich and seven other local communities, has seen similar increases. Not including private tuition-paying foreign students, NFA had 297 MLL students in January. More arrive each day, said NFA Registrar Jennifer Jarrett. Eight new students enrolled on Jan. 26. NFA had 181 MLL students in 2021 – “That felt like a lot at the time,” said Rebecca Vose, MLL coordinator.

    Staff at NFA’s Diversity Office welcome and acclimate new students from around the world.

    “We have students who have gone through a very difficult journey to get here,” NFA Diversity Director Leo Butler said. “We don’t talk about that. We don’t publicize that. But we know the stories and the difficulties kids went through to get here. I’ll look at some of these kids in the hallway and I say to myself: ‘This kid, I know what he or she went through to get here. And now they’re laughing in the hallway, going to get a Slushy.’”

    New London’s new learners

    On Jan. 22, New London Public Schools MLL Director Maria Carrillo presented a report to the Board of Education showing the district went from 790 multilingual learners in 2020-21 to 955 in mid-January 2024 in kindergarten through 12th grades. By Feb 2, Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said, another 22 students had arrived, bringing the total to 977.

    In New London, MLL students speak 14 different primary languages at home, but the majority speak either Spanish or Haitian Creole. Norwich Public Schools reported in January that MLL students were speaking 22 different languages at home, also most prominently Spanish and Haitian Creole.

    New London schools opened a welcome center in the Shaw’s Cove office complex on Jan. 2. All new families can register for classes, adult education or birth-to-age-8 programs. The center offers information about living in New London, city and agency services.

    To embrace the growing diversity, New London High School will launch a magnet academic pathway focused on global studies, Ritchie said. The program will include languages, cultures and careers in international fields, Ritchie said.

    “We all know the needs of the students,” Carrillo said. “We want to highlight the benefits to the community. They are rich in culture, language, experiences. How they are an asset to the community.”

    Not all the newcomer students are immigrants. Carrillo estimated about 45% of New London schools’ MLL students were born in the United States.

    Groton Public Schools have seen modest increases in MLL student enrollment, from 168 in 2021-22 to 183 this year. Much-smaller East Lyme Public Schools, however, saw the MLL enrollment nearly double from 56 in 2020 to 108 at the end of 2023.

    Newcomers from around the world

    The bulk of the new MLL students in Norwich are from Haiti, continuing the city’s decades-long connection with the impoverished island nation. Much of Haiti has continued to descend into political and economic chaos, with violent gangs rampant.

    People also are coming to the region from Guatemala, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries in South and Central America. Many also come from Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth.

    New London has also seen newcomers from Spain, Syria and Afghanistan.

    In January 2023, the Biden Administration announced a humanitarian parole program for citizens in Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela who face violence and severe economic distress in their homelands. They can apply for temporary permission to come to the United States for up to two years.

    Residents of the named countries must apply through U.S. embassies or consulates in their home countries. It is not available to migrants who come undocumented to the U.S. border. Contrary to the common association of the word “parole” with prison, the applicants are not prisoners in their home countries.

    “The program has been around for a long time,” U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District said. “It happens out of country, not at the southern border. For countries like Haiti, the humanitarian parole program has been exercised to help people escape ungodly violence.”

    Applicants for humanitarian parole must have an approved financial supporter already in the United States. Applicants are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. They must clear “robust security vetting,” the Department of Homeland Security states, and meet other eligibility criteria not specified. The program allows up to 30,000 people per month from the listed countries to be approved to come to the United States.

    Immigration Advocacy and Support Center, IASC, based in New London and with office hours in Norwich, provides legal help to immigrants on issues such as work papers, green cards, citizenship and support for women who have experienced violence.

    Betsy Stevenson, a member of the IASC board of directors, said there has been a steady demand for services recently, after an uptick when the United States extended Temporary Protective Status for Haitians living here based on the continuing turmoil in Haiti.

    Stevenson interviews immigrants and posts their stories in her newsletter on the group’s website, iascct.org.

    “They’re really a part of our community and our economy,” Stevenson said. “They’re desirable people.”

    The ‘Biden program’

    The Day interviewed adult education students from Haiti, Peru, Guatemala and Nicaragua in recent weeks. Some earned advanced college degrees in their homelands or owned businesses. Others never finished high school. All the adults must gain proficiency in English before taking adult education high school or career training classes.

    A majority of the newly arrived Haitian students said they came on humanitarian parole. They call it “the Biden program.” Butler, the NFA diversity director, said students whose families came on humanitarian parole call themselves “Biden kids.”

    Schools a safe place

    Public school officials are not allowed to ask families registering children their immigration status. And they don’t question the children on their experiences to get here, school superintendents, MLL directors and teachers said in interviews with The Day.

    NFA officials said the first message they want to convey to students and families is that they have entered a safe place with caring, supportive adults and local civic leaders.

    “It’s amazing how resilient kids are,” said Butler, the diversity director. “What they’ve been through, really a living hell many of them, to get here, that’s why we have to give them care and love and comfort. Because they need it. I think we excel at that piece too. We make our kids feel good about themselves and comfortable.”

    School social workers, psychologists and guidance counselors are alerted, and the students receive whatever support or counseling they need to get comfortable and ready to learn, NFA Registrar Jarrett said. Students are hooked up with the school-based health center and learn about the Wildcat Loft, a free general store with clothes, school supplies, personal items, hygiene products. Most important for students from tropical countries, the store offers winter coats, boots, gloves, sweaters and hats.

    New London Public Schools formed a partnership with Columbia University in the fall in a program that surveyed and interviewed newcomer students to learn their stories and their goals. A report should be available this spring, Superintendent Ritchie said. She hopes it will help the school system support newcomer students.

    “We are really excited, because the stories the students tell are going to illuminate the goals we have,” Ritchie said.

    Costs undefined

    The cost to educate hundreds of new students is difficult to nail down, school officials said. Ritchie said the New London school budget is not overtaxed, in part because the district has been unable to fill high-demand, vacant MLL teaching positions.

    New London and Norwich both are state Alliance Districts, receiving additional state education grants as distressed municipalities. Recent COVID-19 education recovery grants also have helped, though those will expire soon.

    Congressman Courtney said education funding that could support districts with increases in multilingual learners is tied up in Congress, as are most budgetary issues.

    Norwich and New London depend heavily on federal Title 1 grants that support low- and moderate-income students. Title III, a grant program started in 2001 under President Gerege W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative, specifically provides funding for students needing to learn English.

    Biden’s proposed 2024 education budget called for $1.2 billion for Title III, an increase of $305 million above the fiscal year 2023 enacted level. Congress has yet to pass a budget, Courtney said, and Republicans have proposed an 80% cut to the Title I grant, and “zeroed out” Title III funding, Courtney said.

    Courtney said he has been meeting with superintendents and the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education on the federal education funding issues.

    “That issue is not settled yet,” Courtney said. “We are still fighting the 2024 budget.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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