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Supporting English Language Learners in the Midst of COVID-19

How one alumna is helping English language learners and undocumented students continue to learn during the pandemic. 

July 9, 2020

 group of teachers standing above multiple international flags and a sign reading "We are Carver"

New Orleans has long been known for its unique blend of cultures and the immigrant communities that have influenced the rich traditions that the city cherishes. In recent decades, the Latinx community in the region has grown significantly, leading to an increased need for schools to support students with language barriers, who may be undocumented or have family members who need additional support.

Emma Merrill (Colorado ’13) has used her experiences working with Latinx communities and her knowledge of the challenges that many Latinx students face to lead new innovations at her school in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An Early Commitment to Education

Emma grew up in Virginia, where her mother served as an elementary school guidance counselor. “Education was in my blood,” she says. During Emma’s college years, it moved to her heart. She began volunteering with the service organization Students Helping Honduras and agreed to spend a summer there teaching English.

“I had this one girl in my kindergarten classroom named Reina. She kept telling me she didn’t believe in herself enough to learn how to write her letters,” Emma says.

One day, Emma asked another teacher to watch her class, took Reina by her hand, and walked to the girl’s nearby home. She asked Reina’s mother if someone in the family could go with them back to school, sit next the girl, and reassure her.

“Her brother came with her, and Reina drew the letter ‘L’ that day, and I’ve been in love with teaching ever since,” Emma says. 

From there, Emma joined Teach For America and taught at a school for Mexican immigrants in Denver before becoming the English as a Second Language program lead for Collegiate Academies in New Orleans. She now serves as English Learner program lead for Carver High School, a charter school and critical lifeline for students in the city’s Ninth Ward.

Supporting Students in the Ninth Ward

In addition to its highly touted gifted-and-talented program, Carver serves students with mental and physical disabilities, offers trauma-informed mental health support, and helps with legal services. It also provides a free clinic and a food pantry, all of which are crucial for many Carver students and families.

“It isn’t easy for a 16- or 17-year-old to start high school in this country without knowing English. I’ve built a program at Carver that supports them as students and also as people,” Emma says.

“It isn’t easy for a 16- or 17-year-old to start high school in this country without knowing English. I’ve built a program at Carver that supports them as students and also as people.”

Emma Merrill

Colorado Corps Member 2013

Even with the school’s extraordinary level of support, English language learners and undocumented students face enormous hurdles. Many are in the U.S. unaccompanied, meaning they must work full time to support themselves, pay rent, and pay for legal services.

As a result, only a third of these students in New Orleans earn a diploma.

Reaching Out During the COVID-19 Lockdown 

Those kinds of odds made the school year’s abrupt end especially alarming for Emma. So many of her students have put academics aside, at least temporarily, to work and support themselves and their families, either in town or in their native countries.

“Most importantly, I was worried about students not getting what they need while in quarantine—meals, medical services, and counseling services,” she says. “I was especially worried about my students who receive counseling and have experienced intense trauma in their home countries. I was worried they would feel alone and abandoned. Since we’ve been in quarantine, one of my students has made a suicide attempt, and I’m worried about the future.”

In the first week of quarantine, Emma and members of her team at Carver checked in with each student’s family. They also checked on students’ available technology to determine which ones needed supplemental material. Through its network with other schools, Emma’s team created packets for humanities and math courses that were translated, linked on Carver’s website and, in many cases, hand-delivered to those without transportation.

In the second week, Emma saw how families, especially those who were undocumented, struggled with access to basic services like drive-up testing, mental health support, and food. She organized calls with case managers and social workers to figure out answers and develop messaging in Spanish.

She provided instructions on accessing telehealth services through Carver’s free clinic and information on local food pantries. And, she partnered with a local nonprofit to produce a video that explains in Spanish how to complete the U.S. Census

“I’ve set up telehealth appointments for families who have had coronavirus. I’ve translated calls with families and Cox Communications to set up internet hot spots. I’ve sent students reminders about their virtual calls with their immigration lawyers. I’ve delivered Chromebooks and food to families in need. I’ve checked in with my seniors every day to ensure they’re completing their college applications and helped them practice their interviews in English,” Emma says. 

“A year from now, students won’t remember much about the packets you gave them. But they will remember how you reached out to them saying that you love and care about them.”

Emma Merrill

Colorado Corps Member 2013

Emma’s calls and texts are emotional lifelines for students. For students without phones, she sends letters with stamped envelopes so they can respond. Even with her help, however, there are so many needs.

Nutrition is a major issue. Food pantries are running low as families struggle to find work and pay bills. Of course, those who are undocumented won’t receive federal relief checks. At least three of Emma’s students had coronavirus and didn’t seek treatment, because they don’t have insurance.

As schools turn to distance learning, internet access is suddenly in the forefront. Many students used their phones and Wi-Fi hotspots to complete assignments. And while laptops were distributed, students still need connectivity.

Emma says the work is hard but nevertheless rewarding. She has seen the resilience of teachers and families in a new light. Her hope is that students can adapt and find a way to complete their classwork, even if they work full-time. She is encouraged by the number who have called about re-enrolling.

Students and families shouldn’t be forced to forego public health or legal services because they’ve sought better lives for themselves in this country, Emma says.

“A year from now, students won’t remember much about the packets you gave them,” she said. “But they will remember how you reached out to them saying that you love and care about them.”

This story is part of Teach For America Greater New Orleans' Transformational Leaders series, which has been made possible in part through the generosity of our partners at Entergy.