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Melissa Vazquez-McCoy is the new English-learner (EL) teacher for EL students in Old Saybrook and Westbrook schools. She divides her time between the two districts, spending three days in one week in Old Saybrook and two in Westbrook and then flipping that pattern the following week. The two districts also share the costs of her salary and benefits. (Photo by Becky Coffey/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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Melissa Vazquez-McCoy may be new to the Westbrook and Old Saybrook school districts, but she’s not new to her chosen career teaching students who are English learners (EL). Melissa’s new post is emblematic of school districts’ efforts to regionalize services where possible to save costs.
An EL student is a child whose native language is not English and who is not yet proficient enough in English to manage classroom work without support. Since neither Westbrook nor Old Saybrook had enough EL students to justify hiring a full-time EL teacher, Old Saybrook Superintendent of Schools Jan Perruccio and Westbrook Superintendent of Schools Pat Ciccone agreed to hire one between them, sharing her services and costs. Under the plan, agreed to by the State Department of Education and local teacher unions, the new hire would divide her time between the two districts and the districts agreed to share the costs of her salary and benefits.
In Old Saybrook, Melissa works with 26 EL students and in Westbrook, 42 EL students. In Old Saybrook, she is also assisted by English as a second language tutor Erin Reid, who specifically works with EL students in the middle and high schools.
Melissa understands the challenges her students face.
“I grew up in Groton, and my first language was Spanish—church was Spanish, home was Spanish, the extended family was Spanish. Then I went to kindergarten, but I didn’t understand English—I had to repeat kindergarten. So my parents put me in a public school for a year of kindergarten,” she says. “There was no EL program and my parents didn’t know to advocate for me.
“When I entered school, I was extremely shy—that’s a common trait of EL kids because they are not confident yet to speak so they stay silent,” says Melissa. “Seeing how I struggled as a student, I decided I wanted to help students facing the same challenges as I did.”
Melissa brings both personal and professional experience to the new EL teaching position. Last year she was an EL teacher in the New London schools and, before that, she spent 16 years with LEARN as a bi-lingual Kindergarten-1st grade teacher at the regional multi-cultural magnet school in New London.
“At LEARN, I taught all kids in both English and Spanish reading groups all day,” says Melissa. “In New London last year, I taught 23 new arrivals to the states—6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders—in five subjects. Most of my teaching was in English in New London, as is the case in Old Saybrook and Westbrook.”
Melissa says that in Westbrook, she has her own classroom where she works with EL students in the elementary school. In Old Saybrook, she teaches kids in the elementary school, but also acts as an EL district leader, coaching middle and high school teachers in EL strategies. She also serves as a translator when needed for parents and staff.
“In an Old Saybrook elementary classroom, I would work with one to two students, for example. They would sit next to me and I support them in the lesson the teacher is delivering. If we were talking about owls, I would explain the concepts in English and Spanish,” says Melissa. “You check for the students’ understanding in English first—habitats of an owl, food, owl pellets—and then look for vocabulary words that are cognates, words with common roots in Spanish and English.
“Very quickly, students start to learn English and they want to try,” says Melissa. “What I have observed in both towns is the openness and welcoming attitude towards the new EL students of the young children. It melts my heart and makes me love my job even more.”
When she speaks with her EL students, she tells them they need to learn English, but that they should also keep up with their first language. She encourages the EL students’ parents to read to them in their native language, if that’s what they are most comfortable with, because it will help the students build vocabulary and reading skills.
“I can’t imagine going from your home country to a foreign country where you can’t speak the language,” says Melissa. “Usually for a few years, an EL student will need some support, but the need decreases as time goes on.”
Sometimes there are misunderstandings with EL students’ parents. The parents expect their child to do as well in the U.S. schools as they did in schools in their native country, but it can be difficult to do that. She tries to help parents understand that the students will learn social English first and only after several years will they gain proficiency in academic English.
“It takes over seven years to learn academic English, to be proficient in the language,” says Melissa.
When EL students arrive in the district, they take a test to assess their language skills. Later, they take a state-mandated Language Assessment Test.
To help students, the Old Saybrook district gives EL students an iPad with Google Translate loaded on it to help them in the classroom when they struggle with a word.
“Google Translate has gotten so much better over the last few years—the translations are much more accurate. We encourage students to use the program, but not to rely on it. We want them to be able to think and communicate in English,” says Melissa.
When Melissa is not teaching, she and her husband Calvin oversee their Niantic business, Advantage Personal Training, and raise their growing family of three children. She loves the beach and spending time with family. But when she can, she tries to find time to paint.
“I love to paint. It calms me down,” says Melissa.
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