Thomy Mwali (left) and Erik Phan (right) pose for a photo in Susan Rosato’s English language learner class last Friday morning. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Less than a dozen students circled around the table in a small Colchester High School classroom early Friday morning, eyes on teacher Susan Rosato as she offered strategies to stay engaged when experiencing an English overload.

The tightknit group of English language learners calls discussions like these “pep talks,” each intended to address common challenges that pepper their day-to-day lives.

“Sometimes you start thinking about something else and afterwards [the teacher] says, ‘OK, do it,’ and everyone starts opening their stuff,” student Thomy Mwali said, mimicking the dumbfounded panic he intermittently sports during class.

Mwali, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of more than 50 Colchester students enrolled in ELL programming across the district. The supplemental classes offer support as kids learn to navigate a new language and, often, a new way of life.

ELL students might arrive as refugees, immigrants or transfer from another U.S. school district, Rosato said, each bringing their own cultural background and level of language proficiency.

Rosato has led the ELL charge for nearly 15 years, working tirelessly to guide her students through the school system. Originally a part-time staffer, she once had only two days per week to work with every child.

Some had experienced severe trauma or interrupted schooling due to warfare and were illiterate in even their first language, she said. One student, struggling to adapt to the entirely new environment, told Rosato she’d learn English next year instead.

“We don’t have time,” Rosato remembered saying. “You have to learn now.”

After pushing for more resources, Rosato became a full-time employee and was joined by a part-time colleague. This year, a second full-time ELL teacher joined the team, allowing Rosato to focus exclusively on high school students.

Many of Rosato’s daily tasks now happen behind the scenes, like emailing teachers to remind them of upcoming Muslim holidays or helping her students find a ride to soccer practice.

Rosato also hosts a three-week summer program every year, providing a few hours of daily ELL instruction to district kids of all ages. In addition to offering an academic boost, Rosato said the workshop extends the sense of community beyond her classroom.

Still, she said her team wants to improve relationships with students’ parents. Though the children often speak more advanced English, Rosato said they never ask kids to translate for their families.

Even so, the imbalance can create an unusual power dynamic. Rosato said she often works to navigate families’ cultural norms in addition to bridging the language barrier.

Some of Rosato’s current charges, like Vietnam native Erik Phan, started class with virtually no understanding of what his peers and teachers were saying.

“When I came here, my English was just zero,” Phan said in class last week. “I just said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and smiled.”

Around the table, Phan’s classmates echoed the sentiment. Some stories prompted laughter, like Mwali’s recollection of a soccer coach repeatedly prompting him to “go wide” with little success.

But as Stephane Katende shared, a severe language barrier can sometimes be anything but funny. Years ago in a neighboring district, Katende said he couldn’t defend himself after a fellow student started a physical fight during a basketball game.

“I couldn’t speak English, so I couldn’t tell the teacher that he was the one who started the whole thing,” said Katende, also from the DRC.

“That used to happen to me all the time,” Anish Gurung said. The Nepal native has also attended school in Winooski and Burlington. “That’s why I would get detention, go to [the] planning room every day.”

Though their backgrounds differ, Rosato said these common experiences bond her students. Last year, they published a book of essays together and shared the work with sixth-graders at Colchester Middle School.

“Having a place where they feel super comfortable, I think for their mental health, too, is really wonderful,” Rosato said. “They know [they] can come in here and there are a lot of people here who really understand what [they’re] going through.”

That’s especially true for student Risthika Gurung who sat in ELL class on Friday despite “testing out” of the program. For her, holding on to the dedicated time with her fellow classmates is more about community than language.

“I don’t feel like I belong out there; I feel like I belong here. If I didn’t have this class, I don’t know what I would do,” Gurung said. “When I’m here, I feel like I belong here because everyone else is the same.”