English language learner teacher Stephanie Teleen works with students in Milton Elementary School, as well as the middle school. (File photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

For a student who has two languages spoken at home, learning English may mean jumping a few extra hurdles. In Milton, Stephanie Teleen is here to help.

Teleen, Milton Town School District’s English language learning teacher, has seen an increase from 16 to 26 students in just one year. Her position is likely to expand from part- to full-time next year, if voters approve the proposed fiscal year 2019 school budget on Town Meeting Day.

There’s a growing need for English learning education in Milton, Teleen said, as students represent 16 countries and speak 11 languages – including Vietnamese, Chinese, Nepalese, Spanish, French and Bosnian.

“That’s why ELL is important: It’s ensuring that students who have any language background that’s different, have equal access to education,” Teleen said.

A student can qualify for ELL services by taking a state-mandated home language survey, taken by all Vermont students. A child is flagged for ELL services if he or she has a language other than English present at home.

Fourth-grader Noah Hecker and his seventh grade brother, Otis, are both in the Milton program.

Otis was born in the United States and a year later moved to France, where his brother was born. Like their father, the two children are native French speakers.

Mother Emily Hecker says she’s seen great progress in the kids’ English since moving to the U.S. four years ago, and specifically once moving to Milton last year.

Having Teleen as a permanent structure in the kids’ education is beneficial, Hecker noted, saying the educator finds innovative ways to help the students, such as iPads and talk-to-text apps.

“Any time any kid with any kind of additional challenges has someone advocating for them, it’s a bonus,” Hecker said.

Teleen, who also serves as a part-time reading interventionist, pulls students in and out of regular instruction time. Most often, she goes into a classroom during writing lessons.

This “pulling in” method creates an immersive learning environment. In more diverse school districts like Winooski, newcomers and refugees are separated into their own classrooms to learn English before entering primary classrooms.

The need is different in Milton. After the primary teacher gives an introduction to the day’s activity, Teleen works with an ELL student and often groups him or her with students with similar learning needs.

Working in groups, she said, adds a social aspect to the lesson and allows more kids to benefit from her intervention. Together, they’ll talk through a writing assignment, brainstorming details to include: What smells, sounds, tastes and looks are associated with the topic? What adjectives and verbs can be used for descriptive purposes?

One writing student, Teleen recalled, believes a period belongs at the end of every line. Then there’s the irregular past tense, which is a difficult hurdle for ELL students to overcome.

Following the “pull out” method last year, Teleen worked with one of the Hecker boys after school to foster a larger vocabulary pool. Hecker said the one-on-one instruction is unique to other ELL programs she’s seen.

When schoolchildren grow up with a primary language, the learning curve is higher than if they made the switch at a younger age.

This year, seven ELL students are in kindergarten, and nine are in pre-K programs on and off school campus, Teleen said. Compared to elementary and middle school students, kindergartners are at a more level playing field with their peers, who are also learning letters, sounds and social concepts like using the bathroom, Teleen noted.

With preschoolers, she greets them and occasionally joins them at snack time to begin a relationship that will last through their school years. There are no ELL students at Milton High School.

Teleen’s bond with Hecker’s kids is noteworthy. Similar to the Hecker family, Teleen spent close to three years in France with her husband and children.

While abroad, Teleen said she and her family struggled to learn a new language in a foreign land. Luckily, she had a phenomenal French teacher who inspired her to enroll in St. Michael’s College’s Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages graduate program.

Many of her ELL colleagues in Vermont also graduated from the MATESOL courses, providing a good support system for her to call on. Yet as Milton’s class size continues to grow, she hopes Milton will become diverse enough to require a second ELL educator.

Under state law, the students’ families are provided translators. It’s Teleen’s job to find them so they can attend teacher-parent conferences or help make sense of district documents like permission slips and health forms.

Hecker hopes Milton’s robocall system will someday evolve to be like Burlington schools, where her children once attended: When the call came through, it was in French.

At home, the Heckers speak French to keep their native culture alive. Teleen encourages this approach, which Hecker says shows her kids that being bilingual is valuable and not something that needs fixing. 

“What they may lack in the beginning, they make up in spades later on,” Teleen said of her students. “Statistically speaking, they’ll be higher achieving later on — uniquely bilingual and understand concepts in other languages.”

What it comes down to in the end — in any language — is supporting students and families within the Milton community, Teleen said.

“I love working here. I love my job,” she said. “I love the fact that I get to work with students who are super interesting and come from different backgrounds. I feel like I have the best job in the school.”