Bridging the Achievement Gap: ESL and ASL in Connecticut Schools

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Dr. Helen Koulidobrova, Assistant Professor in Linguistics/TESOL at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), grew up in Ukraine, but in the predominantly Russian-speaking city of Dnipropetrovsk. When traveling throughout Ukraine with her parents as a child, she noticed how well Russian was spoken throughout the country; even in republics where the native languages weren’t connected, the inhabitants spoke Russian fluently. She wondered, “Was it due simply to practice? Was it a function of propaganda? Even at a young age, I thought the way language worked and how it was acquired was fascinating.”

 

The process of language acquisition usually refers to first-language acquisition—the way in which infants perceive and internalize their native language—but it can also describe second-language acquisition, which addresses how children and adults learn other languages. Dr. Koulidobrova’s research deals with both means of language attainment, and even spans both vocal and manual speech through her work in American Sign Language.

 

The phrase “Qui Transtulit Sustinet,” which adorns the State Seal of Connecticut, means “He Who Transplanted Still Sustains.” According to a report from the CT State Department of Education, Connecticut’s K–12 schools are home to students who speak 169 languages—13 percent of whom consider a language other than English to be their dominant language. These students, who bring to Connecticut their cultural knowledge, bi- and multilingualism, and many more rare assets, are transplants from around the world, but current studies show that their ability to achieve within the current Connecticut school system is hindered by a lack of tools to address language learning.

 

As a multilingual, non-native English speaker, Dr. Helen Koulidobrova is a prime example of how transplants help to sustain Connecticut: her background led her to concentrate her research on language acquisition and linguistics, and as a result, she has been working to address Connecticut’s achievement gap by focusing on the disparity in how English language learners (ELLs) and deaf students are taught.

 

According to recent data released by the U.S. Department of Education, Connecticut has the widest achievement gap in the country. The gap is especially pronounced in the test scores of ELLs, who underperformed their native English-speaking peers by 26–59 percent in math and 40–50 percent in reading, depending on the test. Connecticut’s ELLs also graduate at a rate of 60.1 percent, which is 15 percent lower than non-ELLs.

 

“The minute I entered the CSU system,” Dr. Koulidobrova says, “I promised myself that before I moved on, I would make sure two things changed: children for whom English is not a first langauge will be taught differently and deaf children will be taught differently than how they are currently.” Since joining the CCSU faculty in 2012, Dr. Koulidobrova has testified before the Education Committee with recommendations for improving the quality of bilingual education in Connecticut.

She has also co-founded the Connecticut Bilingualism and English Language Learning Research Lab (BELL-RL), which was developed to offer Connecticut schools and stakeholders greater knowledge of TESOL practices and the resources to bridge ELLs into successful academic English. BELL-RL also aims to provide professional development workshops to K–12 school districts in Connecticut in order to help give educators better tools to address the growing problem directly.

 

For Dr. Koulidobrova, living up to the motto on the State Seal means working to give young Connecticut transplants the opportunity to one day become productive citizens of the state. As the achievement gap remains the widest in the country, ELLs are the students feeling the most significant effects. To create educational equity across Connecticut’s disparate school districts, Dr. Koulidobrova contends that linguistic diversity in schools should be seen and treated as “a move that will set emerging CT workforce, members of which are still children today, apart in the world whose borders are rapidly shifting.”

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