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Rita Joseph, Council's new education chair, to focus on pandemic's effect on English language learners

New York City Council Member Rita Joseph will lead her first hearing as chair of the education committee Monday, focusing on an issue that’s close to her heart personally and professionally: the impact of COVID-19 on public school students learning English. 

Joseph represents District 40 in Brooklyn, which includes Flatbush, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Kensington, Ditmas Park, and Southern Crown Heights. She spent more than two decades as a teacher at P.S. 6 in Brooklyn, where she was most recently an English as a New Language (ENL) coordinator. She was teaching right up until she joined the Council in January, and some of Joseph’s former students helped her campaign. She has promised to keep students’ needs at the forefront of her work in her new role, especially the city’s many students for whom English is not their first language.

According to city statistics, nearly 370,000 public school students’ primary home language is not English. Of those, roughly 140,000 are considered English Language Learners (ELLs) because their proficiency falls below an official threshold. English Language Learners have always faced challenges, with graduation rates less than 50% in recent years. 

Many experts said they faced a particularly difficult period during remote learning, as immigrant parents tried to access and navigate technology, and key information from the education department often came digitally and only in English. Students also missed out on the chance at the immersive classroom experience that helps with language acquisition; when they have been in school, it has been harder to watch teachers’ and peers’ mouths form words under their masks. 

Joseph saw the difficulties first hand. Like so many teachers, she said the first challenge she faced was getting students online so that they could attend school at all. 

“I had a set of families that came to the country from Yemen in February and then the pandemic hit in March … so I was looking for resources for them,” she said. “I was busy applying for iPads for parents who didn’t have computers, didn’t have WiFi and didn’t speak the language.”

She distributed paper packets to hold students over as they waited for the technology to arrive. 

“I had another family … they had just [come] from the Congo when they came here in February,” she said. “And every morning I would have to walk them through and how to log on to Google Classroom, how to [navigate] it.”

Joseph made WhatsApp videos with step-by-step instructions that she would send to families. When children’s parents were essential workers, she coached their grandparents. She and other teachers ordered pizza for families, and made sure someone was available to pick up the free lunches given out at schools. 

Joseph said she hadn’t seen many of her students in-person for more than a year when she reunited with them first at the city’s free summer program Summer Rising, and then when schools reopened fully last fall.  

“Seeing them for the first time was very emotional for me,” she said. “It was like, ‘Wow … look how big you’ve gotten.’ … I was hugging [them] as much as I could.”

But she said she worries the pandemic compounded the many obstacles they already faced.

Joseph said she plans to advocate for additional funding for enrichment and support assessments to provide targeted academic support. She said she will also push for more mental health assistance for all students and educators. 

While she said a remote option may not be necessary now that COVID cases are down, she thinks the city needs to be prepared to pivot to remote again, and do a better job, especially for immigrant kids and their families. “It needs to be ready and ready to be deployed the minute we need it,” she said. 

Joseph came to the United States from Haiti with her parents when she was a child and attended schools in the district she now represents. She said classrooms should be havens for students. 

“When kids walk into the building, we try to make it the best until they leave us,” she said. “We should give them the best experience.”

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