When 8-year-old Farid started school at James B. Congdon Elementary School in New Bedford two years ago, he didn’t speak English, stayed quiet and cried most days, according to his principal, Darcie Aungst.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said about first grade. “Now I talk, and I’m not shy anymore.” The third grader from Ecuador says — in English — school is “fun,” he has friends, and he likes science.
English learners are the fastest growing student group in the state, making up 10 percent of public school children. As many districts struggle to prepare these students to pass the MCAS test, the majority of English learners at the Congdon are passing the fourth-grade MCAS. They’re passing the math portion at a higher rate than their peers in almost every other school in the state.
“What we know about English language learners in the country is that it’s really hard to accelerate improvement. So we’re always looking at schools that can accelerate that timeline,” Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said in an interview. “And we see it at the Congdon School, I believe.”
One way Aungst says she has accelerated learning is by using math and science to draw out English learners like Farid.
Another student, 8-year-old Joel from Guatemala, was also in that quiet phase, Aungst said. Joel smiled as he spoke recently about getting 60 multiplication problems in a row correct on an assignment.
“We saw that he was really strong in math, so we tried to play up that strength, give him a lot of positive reinforcement,” Aungst said. “So [he] feel[s] safe and comfortable to take risks in English, too. It’s intimidating to be in a country where you don’t speak the language.”
It might seem counter-intuitive to focus on math and science with students who are just learning English, but Aungst reasoned that those subjects are universal languages and more hands-on and visual. If students came with any schooling from their home country, teachers could build on what they already knew.
Besides focusing on math and science, Aungst helped teachers structure lessons so kids would talk a lot in class, whether it’s in language arts, science or a fourth-grade math class where students had to explain every answer in complete sentences and explain how they got the answers.
When Aungst took over the Congdon in 2015, she wasn’t particularly prepared to run a school with so many kids from other parts of the world. She had started her career as a health sciences teacher and most recently served as vice principal at a middle school in the district.
Most students at the Congdon are poor. Many of their parents make suits at the local garment factory or clean and cut seafood at the processing plants in town. She had very little experience with English language learners, but something happened to her the summer before she started the job. She was traveling in Mexico, got sick and needed help, but she doesn’t speak Spanish.
“I think it really awakened an empathy bone in me,” Aungst said. “When you’re in a country and you don’t speak the language, you look for any connection you can to try to communicate, to try to feel like you have some control over what’s happening to you. You need a lifeline. And I think math and science was that for most of our students.”
Aungst’s methods don’t fundamentally change the way English learners are taught. They’re still learning in English, instead of their native language.
Aungst also worked with teachers to help them understand some students’ struggles. She and the school’s adjustment counselor showed teachers a video of young boys traveling without parents on dangerous trains through Mexico towards the U.S. border. That video, teachers said, made them work harder.
“When you realize what they have been through. You realize it’s not just all them, it’s me, too,” teacher Tina Goncalves said. “Now I have to think about, What am I going to do differently? How am I going to reach every child?”
Teachers and students at the Congdon Elementary were recognized last year for their hard work. The state named it a “school of recognition” for dramatic improvements across the school on the MCAS.
Aungst has gotten a bigger assignment. She’s now running the Congdon and another nearby elementary school, with plans to merge the two schools.
Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.