New Superintendent Understands Learning English as a Second Language

It was at the end of first grade, and thought new Supt. Priya Tahiliani had been born in Memphis, she didn’t speak much English.

Her parents spoke Sindi – a dialect of Hindi that is closely related to Punjabi – at home, and because of the fading health of her grandfather, she was going back and forth to India frequently. Her parents had immigrated to Memphis, where she was born, but their roots there were not yet firm.

And with all that going on, by the end of her first grade year, Tahiliani was nearly held back. Educators in Memphis weren’t sure if she had cognitive problems, but felt it would be a good idea for her to repeat a grade.

“ESL wasn’t really something they had yet, so you were kind of put into a classroom with everyone else,” she said. “We spoke Hindi and Sindi predominantly at home. At school, I really had to learn English, including not only the social English but the academic English – which is very difficult. My grandfather was ill and we were going to India a lot. Any English I learned, I would quickly forget in India, and then I would come back to Memphis. That brought us to the end of first grade and I still wasn’t speaking English well.”

When educators there told her parents they wanted her to repeat first grade, that’s when everything changed, she said.

Her parents freaked out and agreed to begin speaking English at home exclusively. They spoke English, as did Tahiliani’s sisters, and so even though English wasn’t their first language, it became the language of the home.

“I was pretty much mute for three or four months,” she laughed. “I didn’t understand anyone at school or at home. Fast forward, I learned English pretty quickly and got to the second grade. Because of those language issues, flipping back and forth, it hurt my reading comprehension…That has given me a unique perspective on English Learners. It made me not only want to support them, but also to go back and get my license to work directly with them.”

Her experience fortifies a resume that none of the other candidates could provide, and it is especially crucial now and in the coming years as English Learner (EL) students are growing in the district. In 2020, the Everett Schools has made a concerted effort in the budget to address EL students and to make sure teachers are certified.

Last spring, Keverian School Principal Alexander Naumann said 66 percent of the students at the school don’t speak English at home. At Everett High, Principal Erick Naumann has said there are probably 1,000 current or former EL students in the population. It’s the case all over the district, and the District’s EL Director, Anne Auger, said one third of the entire school district will be EL students in two years.

Having someone who can understand their experience might be beneficial.

Tahiliani, who was in the Boston Public Schools Office of English Learners, said there are a lot of different tactics they have been using – and some of those have actually ended up helping native speakers at the same time.

“A lot of the good practices we used for English Learners, such as being explicit about how to use language and the functions of nouns and verbs, has also helped our native speakers become better writers too,” she said. “We started using that instruction not just in literacy, but also science and math. The same techniques do transfer.”

Another major advantage, she said, is she has been in charge of engaging and reaching out to parents of EL students in Boston. Many are recent immigrants, she said, so they can be a hard population to connect with about school issues. That said, she indicated that not all parents simply don’t have the time. Some don’t know they can be active participants in their child’s education. She said that is likely the case in Everett, too, and she wants to make sure everyone has a voice.

“That is definitely a population where engagement is tough,” she said. “It is sometimes because they are working multiple jobs, but there are some – like my parents – who have the time but it isn’t in the culture to get involved in the educational system. It is important to let them know they have a voice and to be advising us about their students and what they see going on…When you’re an immigrant family, that’s not necessarily something you know to do or that you’ve seen around you.”

Tahiliani Knows

Friday Night Lights

Growing up in Memphis, Supt. Priya Tahiliani was well aware of the most exciting place to be on Friday nights.

Given the strong emphasis on high school football in that Tennessee city, it was at the football stadium.

Like Everett, Friday Night Lights was a major part of the culture where Tahiliani grew up and she said she has missed that in her 19 years in Boston – where Friday football culture isn’t so strong.

“Everett does usually win and I’m excited to be a part of that,” she said. “That’s something we had where I grew up and I’ve missed that in my 19 years working for Boston Public Schools.”

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