Duquesne City School District meets the needs of a growing ESL student body

Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 5/6/2024


When the Duquesne City School District brought back school-based athletics in 2022, building the football and basketball programs was the priority. Duquesne, after all, is known for their traditional success in those two sports.

But as the student population has changed, so has the district’s priorities. When the spring sports season started this year, DiAngelo Mitchell, the district’s athletic director, began having students — mostly international — approach him about the possibility of playing soccer.

While fielding a WPIAL sanctioned team wasn’t yet possible, Mitchell started working his connections, seeing how he could creatively meet the requests of those students. What came of Mitchell’s effort was a roughly month-long indoor, intramural soccer league, focused on teaching the kids basic fundamentals, before scrimmaging.

“It meant a lot to me, just to see the joy on their faces every week. Just them eager to start and running in the gym,” said Mitchell. “This is what they wanted. Just seeing them happy really made me happy."

Mitchell’s creative efforts are just an encapsulation of the district’s constant, shifting efforts to best meet the needs and interests of its students. Over the past couple of years, the district’s ESL – or English Second Language — students have increased dramatically. The district has 81 students designated as ESL, within a student enrollment that approaches 500. 

That group of students covers a diverse group of languages, such as Arabic, Pashto, Spanish and Dari. Celeste Rudge, who oversees the district’s ESL programming, said the district offers a large group of translation services, such as Global Wordsmiths, which translates documents, TalkingPoints, a two-way enhanced translation platform that can translate during a conversation, and ClassDojo, which enables families to translate all classroom announcements and messages into their preferred language. In some instances, the district will also provide translators for interactions and events.

ESL students are grouped into two classrooms, based on grade level – K-4 and 5-8.

“We just meet the students where they are and place students accordingly based on their scores, if they’ve been at another district,” said Rudge. “I think the teachers do a really good job of introducing them to their classroom and introducing them to their peers, and the peers are very accepting.”

Students are pulled out of regular classes once a day to participate in ESL classes, when teachers help catch up students on their material, if they need it. Lynetta Smith, who teaches K-4 ESL, will also push into classrooms, observing what students are learning and assisting in their classrooms before pulling them into her classroom. 

“When I push in, I push into all of their academic classes. I try to see all of them and get the language that’s going on in Science, Social Studies, Math, and Reading. And then, the next week I will pull them and work on those skills for half of the time they’re with me, and then the other half of the time we usually work on doing pre-requisite skills for coming up,” said Smith.

“It’s definitely challenging, but it’s a great challenge. Helping these students not only assimilate to the English language, but also school culture and socially and everything that comes with being in a new country and learning a new language. It’s fun. They’re great and are really excited about learning. It’s been exciting.”

Smith said she is always looking for creative ways to engage her students, and to make them feel welcome within the school culture. During Ramadan, Smith worked with students to put together an educational video about it, which was later sent to students and teachers. Smith said she also makes a cognizant effort to learn about her students’ traditions and cultures. Efforts that might seem small can make a big difference in furthering the close-knit, familial culture that Duquesne has been defined by.

“Even just saying good morning to them in their language creates a safe space for them, and shows them that we really care. Creating those relationships and bonds with them are important,” said Smith.

“I think it’s a really welcoming space. You get the community feel where everybody knows everyone. The culture of Duquesne is rooted in family.”

With that in mind, the influx of ESL students doesn’t seem random. Around the same time last year, the district had 63 ESL students, 18 fewer than it does now. 

“I think that’s why we’re seeing an influx, because they do feel welcome here, and they tell their relatives that students feel welcome here,” Rudge said.