Student starts a new program in the Port Washington schools
to support English Language Learners
For many young students, learning English can be a difficult and isolating task. Children who have immigrated to America or were raised in a non-English speaking household are placed in ENL (English as a New Language) classes where they are taught English in school. Not knowing English in a school surrounded by English speakers can be intimidating for young kids, making them more withdrawn and keeping them from making friends. To remedy this issue, Kent Nishikiori, a bilingual Japanese speaker at Paul D. Schreiber High School, started a new program for the Port Washington schools called Language Buddies.
Language Buddies pairs high school bilingual ENL students with elementary-age ENL students to support effective English language literacy instruction at the elementary level while providing high school ENL students leadership roles.
The program started as a pilot last year when Nishikiori approached Priscilla Zárate, the ENL Director, with an interest in supporting students facing the difficulties of not knowing English.
“Kent understood the obstacle and challenges that students our ELLs (English Language Learners) face when they come into a new educational system,” said Zárate. “Having gone through the educational system for some time, he felt that part of his senior experience should be supporting other students like himself.”
At Schreiber High School, completing a Senior Experience Project is a requirement for seniors to graduate. The students must earn civic and community engagement credits to complete their senior experience as part of the New York State Seal of Civic Readiness. The Seal of Civic Readiness is a formal recognition that a student has attained high proficiency in civic knowledge, skills, and experiences.
Last year, Nishikiori visited his guidance counselor Nori Cerny to discuss the idea for his Senior Experience. Ms. Cerny suggested he visit an elementary school ENL teacher to see where he could help.
“During one of my free periods, I went to Manorhaven Elementary school and got set up in Miss Bellman’s class of first- or second- graders,” said Nishikiori. “There were three Japanese boys, and in the beginning, they were shy and timid. They wouldn’t talk with me; I just kind of hovered over them and tried to conversate and ask questions.”
“Maybe by the fifth time I visited, they became active with me and started actually engaging and asking me questions,” said Nishikiori. “I felt like I really did my job.”
Nishikiori was born here and learned English as his first language, but he spoke Japanese at home with his family.
“In elementary school, I had a hard time learning English. I was in ENL for one year, then I graduated from that [program],” said Nishikiori. “One thing that helped me a lot was during fifth grade, I was pretty fluent in English by then, but we had this thing called Greeting Buddies.”
With the Greeting Buddies program, an older student would read a book with an elementary-aged student once a week during free time in school.
“This girl named Jackie would help me read a book, and that took an effect on me,” said Nishikiori. “That experience really helped me become the person I am today. I have the opportunity to help kids; I kind of swapped places with Jackie.”
Nishikiori took this memory from his elementary school days and expanded on it to make Language Buddies. He hopes the program can be expanded so as many bilingual speakers as possible can participate in this fulfilling experience. Lucky for Nishikiori, his younger brother will still be in high school after graduating this spring to carry on Language Buddies for years to come.
Since Nishikiori’s first visit to Manorhaven Elementary school last year, the program has developed and gained popularity among bilingual students. Since this January, 26 bilingual high schoolers have joined Language Buddies and go down to Manorhaven Elementary school to meet up with ELL students. The high schoolers meet with a senior experience advisor and create a schedule to visit the elementary school during their free periods so nothing interferes with their academic responsibilities.
While this program is only in Manorhaven Elementary, everyone involved is hopeful that the program will expand to the other elementary and secondary schools in the Port Washington School District.
ENL teacher and Language Buddies participant John Davis has high school bilingual students come into his classroom at Manorhaven Elementary to pair up with his elementary school students.
“Manorhaven is one of the most diverse schools in Port, and this program is happening very naturally,” said Davis. “Students at the high school that actually came through Manorhaven are coming back to the classroom and working with the teachers that taught them English.”
“It’s a beautiful thing, and I would like to see it expanded,” said Davis. “I’m so proud they want to give back to their community.”
The seniors constantly help the elementary-aged students with classwork such as math and reading. But the social-emotional aspect of this program is just as important.
“I’ve just hovered over the kids while they do class work to help out, but we did a lot of other things like play basketball, go to lunch together, and I’ve even been to art class with some of them,” said Nishikiori. “We’ve created a bond with the kids.”
Students entering a new educational system that is unknown to them can have a lot of fear and anxiety about making friends and fitting in. Having someone like Nishikiori, who speaks their language, understands their cultural background, and has some experience in the American school system, is a great comfort to ELL students.
While Language Buddies benefits elementary school-age ENL students, it also gives the high school students a sense of responsibility and experience in a classroom setting. Zárate shared that seniors now tell her they want to pursue careers in the educational field because of their time with the younger students.
In addition, the Language Buddies program provides an opportunity for Schreiber seniors to earn community service toward their Senior Experience Project by helping students and acting as role models.
The Language Buddies program has received a grant from the Ed. Foundation, which supports initiatives beyond basic educational needs for students in the Port Washington public school district. The funding from the Ed. Foundation has helped provide busing for students to visit the elementary school.
With the collaborative help of Zárate, Davis, the entirety of the ENL Department and the Education Foundation, Nishikiori’s idea has come to life, allowing Port’s bilingual students to thrive in both elementary and high school.