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Martha's Vineyard schools teaching 'next generation of bilingual support'

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Leah Palmer
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Leah Palmer
"I have so many staff members coming up to me and saying, 'I want to learn Portuguese,'" Leah Palmer (right) says. "I didn't have that before."

"Every single teacher in our school system has an English learner in their classroom," says ELL director Leah Palmer. "Our mission is to provide language access and equity to all of Martha's Vineyard."

One in five students on Martha's Vineyard is learning to speak English at school.

This year, the island's public schools have seen their largest enrollment of English Language Learners in a decade, with most in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury classrooms.

The program promotes equity and builds trust among Portuguese-speaking families moving to Martha's Vineyard.

To match the island’s evolving immigrant population, the schools are working to hire more bilingual teachers and staff.

For 10 years, Leah Palmer has been leading that effort as English Language Learning director for Martha's Vineyard public schools.

Patrick Flanary: Give me a sense of English Language Learning in 2022.

Leah Palmer, director of English Language Learning, Martha's Vineyard public schools: We've truly become a bilingual school system. And through that, our ELL programs have definitely grown. We're really trying to diversify our staffing and bring in more multicultural staff into our schools. And right now, we're hoping that we can potentially offer some support to be able to bring in teachers from Brazil, too, so we can have our students be reflected in their teachers.

PF: How do you attract and bring multilingual staff to the island?

LP: We are looking at the opportunity of being able to provide H-1B visas through our schools. This is actually a new thing right now. We're exploring this and hoping that this is the future for our schools, to be able to start diversifying our teaching field.

PF: What obstacles have you encountered along the way?

LP: The demographic shifts that we have seen within our school system over the last 10 years have happened pretty rapidly. We're now to a point where every single teacher in our school system has an English learner in their classroom. So now, bringing in professional development and culturally responsive teaching is becoming much more relevant to everyone. So I'm seeing a lot more movement in teachers being invested in this. We've entered this new realm with everyone being onboard. I have so many staff members coming up to me and saying, "I want to learn Portuguese." I didn't have that before.

PF: How do you do this with the resources you have, and how limited are you with broadening this program?

LP: I was able to bring in a Sheltered English Immersion coach this year, and she has been working with teachers to support English learners in their classrooms. Our mission is to provide language access and equity to all of Martha's Vineyard. We're actually going to be running a course for high school students, and hoping that's going to be that next generation of bilingual support for our community.

PF: What are the students learning English telling you?

LP: It's hard having to juggle all of this content and academic rigor along with learning a language. And with a housing crisis. And with not having all the resources you need. So what we've tried to do is always be that place that students can come to.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity