East Dover Elementary School teacher Oribel McFann-Mora is president of Delaware English Language Learners Teachers and Advocates (DELLTA) and one of the architects of the recently launched Delaware English Learner fact sheet series, along with the Delaware Hispanic Commission, the Arsht-Cannon Fund, and the Rodel Foundation.
We caught up with McFann-Mora to talk about the road ahead for English learner advocacy in the First State.
What’s one thing you wish every Delawarean could know about EL students/the EL community that you serve?
There are undisputable benefits in fostering inclusive, diverse, multilingual, and well-educated generations of Delaware students. It’s our responsibility to do our best for all our students, ELs included. They’ll be the ones making decisions that will affect our collective future.
I personally have many success stories involving some of my former ELs. Some have started their own small business, others are well on their way to becoming our next generation of leading scientists, artists, athletes; the list goes on. All of them have in common gratitude for the opportunities they received at school. Many have thanked me for “all I did for them.” It warms my heart, but I always reply that I don’t know what they’re talking about—they did all the hard work; I was just fortunate to be around. As a state we can do more to ensure that all EL students have the opportunities to have this kind of success.
What could Delaware leaders and policymakers do to better support the EL community?
I must share that personally I’m not into politics; all who know me will tell you that I’m a positive and to a good extent naïve person. As a rule I see the good in everyone and in every situation. Also, I’m—to my husband’s horror—an organized and methodical problem-solver. He asks, “Why do I have to number our grocery list? It’s absolutely unnecessary.” My answer: “It must be done so you know how many items you need total and you can easily pinpoint if you’re forgetting one of the items” (he’s yet to agree with my logic).
My point is that in my straightforward way of thinking, prioritizing and funding adequately our Delaware ELs’ educational and linguistic needs is long overdue. We owe it to our EL students and their families. We have to get all stakeholders on board. We must work as a team and create actionable steps. We can’t wait any longer.
What progress have you seen in Delaware?
It’s important to note that we’ve made progress in bringing our EL needs to the forefront. ESSA does well at shining the light on making our ELs’ achievement a priority. Our state ESSA plan sought several stakeholders’ input in its development phase. DELLTA was part of that effort. But we have much more to do and work toward if we are truly planning to close our ELs achievement gap and ensure their linguistic progress.
Tell us a little about DELLTA. What’s your goal and how to you work toward it?
Our current purposes are:
- To advocate for appropriate legislation, sufficient funding, and community involvement for English Language Learners (ELLs) throughout the state of Delaware
- To promote improvement in the education of all phases of English language acquisition and proficiency
- To create an awareness and appreciation of the contributions that linguistic minorities bring to Delaware and the nation
- To promote and support the professional development of educators of English Language Learner
- To recognize the achievements of linguistic minority students through the scholarship grants
- To provide opportunities for group study and discussions of challenges ELL educators encounter
- To assist as a resource in posting the latest educational ELL research
- To provide a forum for presenters in the fields of English language acquisition
- To network with other educational associations
We meet several times a year with DELLTA’s executive and advisory boards and hold two membership meetings in the school year.
We’ve been working hard to recruit teachers of ELs throughout our state. We’re very fortunate to have a cohesive and dedicated group of professionals that are experts in the English learning and language acquisition fields. We’re made up of active EL teachers, expert retirees, and experts in the English learning and linguistic fields. Our collective input and perspective is essential to understand Delaware ELs’ education and needs.
We welcome all those (including non-educators!) with a strong desire to further ELs linguistic and academic progress into our group.
Why is it important for teachers to also be advocates?
Many times, the parents of English learners do not have enough English skills, nor are they aware of their rights to advocate for their children. The ESL teacher has to be their advocate. For many students and families, the ESL teacher is the main link between their world and the English speaking world. We can research problems and questions for our families and help them get the services they need. How many ESL teachers have reached out the school nurse to give an eye exam to one of our ELs? Our nurses then help the families get eye exams and glasses locally.
There are so many cases and examples of this type of advocacy that happens locally. At the state level, DELLTA reaches out to our legislature to advocate for specific EL funding for our students, as well to change laws to protect and help them.
EL teachers truly understand the challenges our students must overcome daily. It’s our responsibility to speak up and advocate for what’s right for our ELs.
We want our ELs to be successful linguistically and academically in our pre-K-12 schools, but we also want them to be college and career ready. To accomplish these lofty goals, we must seek and heed everyone’s expertise in the field. Advocating for ELs is not an EL teacher-only endeavor; it’s a team effort.
Is there anything from your background—either personally or professionally—that drives your focus and passion for this work?
I am a proud Mexican-American and a former EL who dreamed big. I basically put all my eggs in one basket. I didn’t have a backup plan. You know, I’ve heard this is usually not very wise. I completed all of my education by making it a priority and by being fortunate of having a number of outstanding teachers, professors, instructors, friends, and family who supported me along the way. I am the one sibling in my family with the highest education degree. It’s a great source of pride for my family; actually, mostly for my mother.
Often times, I tell my K-4 ELs, “you need to work hard because when you go to college you need to be as ready as you can be.” You see, I want my students think of college as something completely within their reach, as opposed to something foreign and unattainable. I do realize that perhaps college isn’t suitable for all my students, but I do want it to be an option if they’re interested.
What are some factors, in your experience, that allow EL students to thrive?
From an EL/ESL teacher perspective there are many factors that allow EL students to thrive. For example, a safe and nourishing environment in school, where the classroom teacher works closely with the ESL teacher to provide the necessary modifications to the lessons and incorporating appropriate learning strategies to allow the student to learn while developing his second language acquisition skills is a major one. Academic and emotional support at home encourages the student to learn. Valuing the student’s uniqueness and their heritage is an important factor, as is using the first language as much as possible in their education when it is viable.
Additionally, it helps to view our Delaware ELs as everyone’s responsibility. Once we all recognize the assets and needs of our ELs, we can then move on to how to ensure that they’ll thrive and succeed linguistic and academically.
How could Delaware schools utilize additional funding to further support EL students?
We need adequate and sufficient funding specific for the needs of our ELs. We’ve said it before and will continue advocating for it. For years, schools and school districts in Delaware have had discretion in how ELs educational and linguistic supports/programs are delivered, and basically because of limited funding specific to ELs we’ve found ourselves doing “the best we can with what we’ve got.” This is simply not a promising system and approach. We’ve tried it for many years with the results we many of us know: Our ELs continue to still lag behind their non-ELs peers. We need specific funding to meet their education and needs.
As a result of the dozens of years of collective experience acquired from teaching our ELs and working with their families, as well as research conducted in the field, DELLTA members have pointed to the following list (not all inclusive) of best-practice places where every school could invest to support EL students, families and educator:
- Research-based successful programs and supports that truly deliver the best education for our students. A well-developed ESL/EL program should be backed by sound student success data to ensure it meets the local needs of the EL population served.
- Highly qualified ESL/EL teachers at every school. At this very moment we have ESL/EL teachers in Delaware serving 100+ ELs. How can one teacher adequately serve these many students and their families effectively? Recruitment and retainment are key focus areas, and we need new teachers (in-training) in teacher preparation programs taking courses, at least one course, specifically dealing with teaching ELs. Unfortunately, most new teachers are simply not prepared to meet the needs of our ELs.
- Quality ESL curriculum and resources. A highly qualified ESL teacher can work hard day in and out but if the curriculum and resources available are sub-par, the expected progress will suffer.
- Quality EL databases and systems in place at the state level that sync to the state’s other technology systems. I’m personally fortunate to have access to the much of the technology I need pertaining to my ELs. However, some of the systems we use do not sync with other systems we use, resulting in us having to do some work twice or compiling data that may not fully accurate. In addition, not all EL teachers have access to the databases that other do. It just seems to vary from school district to school district.
- Parental involvement, such as through Parent Academies, Adult ESL Literacy classes, school/district events, parent-teacher conferences, and other programs.
- Quality and readily available translation resources at every school and school district, especially for parent or community events. Parents may hesitate to attend school related functions if they aren’t proficient in English and there’s no one to offer them translation support.
- Quality professional development opportunities for ESL/EL teachers and regular education teachers. Experienced and new teachers alike will tell you that quality PD opportunities will improve their teaching, and prompts us to take a step back and reflect on our teaching practices. We believe that we need to continue developing and offering quality PD for both EL and regular education at the school, district, and state level.