ELE Highlights

June Staff Highlight: Martha Romero

MarthaMartha Romero knows firsthand what it’s like to be an English learner.

The current content instructional leader of the ESL department at New Bedford High School began studying the language as a young adult herself. While working full-time as a school teacher in rural Colombia, Romero enrolled in her very first English language class. 

“I signed up for English classes after college,” she recalled. “I took a class, thinking in the back of my head that I’d like to go somewhere else.” She applied for a visa to the United States, where a family member already lived. She jokes that her journey to the U.S. may have gotten a boost from Colombian New Year’s folklore.

“We have this tradition for New Year’s,” Romero explained. “If your wish is to travel, then you take your suitcase and run around the block. According to tradition, your wish will come true.”

After several New Years, and multiple laps around the block with the suitcase, Romero’s wish finally did come true in the form of permission to work in the U.S. She worked as a private nanny in Massachusetts before gravitating back to the classroom. Initially a Spanish teacher in the U.S., she decided to further her education at Bridgewater State University, which led her to work with English learners in the New Bedford Public Schools.

“I was looking for a career change and I wanted to work with the ESL population,” she said. “I know the process of learning the language, and I know the hiccups.” She initially co-taught health for ESL students at the high school, then helped pilot a program for students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE). Many of these students come to the U.S. as high school students of typical age, but only attended elementary school.

Romero is especially passionate about supporting these students. 

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“The needs of this particular group are different than those who have been able to attend regular school consistently,” she said. “If you have been in school your entire life, and you come here, you already have the tools you need to be successful in American schools; you can transfer your knowledge. But for SLIFE students, we need to help them obtain those tools, the foundations of learning.” 

Romero feels an affinity with those students who, like her, come from rural areas of Latin America. 

“I grew up in the countryside, so I identify with the way they grew up,” she said. “The school I worked in had a vegetable garden. It’s a different pace of life. We have in common this idea that you can better your life if you come to the U.S.” 

Romero explained that immigrant students inspire her: “Things are not easy for them, but most of them have a sense of purpose. They have this mentality of working hard and investing in themselves. They want to use the opportunity to improve life for themselves and for their families.” 

Romero now supervises 20 teachers. As of this year, she also has a teaching and learning specialist, Brittany Jenney, who helps support both new and veteran teachers. They are hiring even more teachers to serve the growing EL student population at the high school. About two-thirds of the school’s population consists of EL or former EL students. 

Supporting teaching and learning is only part of Romero’s role at the high school, as teachers and students attest.

“When I first came here she talked to my dad, and she helped my family a lot,” says Dani, a 10th grader at NBHS. “She helped me understand how to get a work permit. She was working at the summer school and it helped my English a lot.”

Veteran teacher Sandra Dourado calls Romero “the adopted matriarch of our students. They know that she is always willing to lend them a hand. She works day and night and she advocates tirelessly for them.”

Romero credits the school community for helping support students who arrive here with many needs. “I’m very lucky that I have a great team of teachers. They really support the kids and they are compassionate. I have the best team. The Family Engagement Center also is a key part of the support for our students; they help families get food, coats, transportation, whatever they need. We all work together.”