State panel looking at ways to improve education of immigrant children

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The number of immigrant students in Maryland schools has doubled over the past decade.

Confronting a decade-long increase in the number of immigrants in Maryland schools, a state task force is looking at how to improve the education of these students.

The task force, convened by the interim state school superintendent in May, is weighing several options, including expanding teacher training and creating a central repository of resources for teachers. State officials are also working with seven other states to come up with less punitive ways to hold schools accountable for achievement of newly arrived students.

Over the past decade, the number of English language learners in Maryland public schools has doubled to about 65,300. By 2014, one in every 10 students in elementary school was a first- or second-generation immigrant.

The dramatic spike forced officials to consider that nearly all public school teachers at some point will encounter at least one of these students in their classrooms, said Susan Spinnato, the state director of instructional programs. Many teachers and schools are ill prepared, state officials acknowledge.

Patterson High School, an East Baltimore school where one-third of the student body is immigrant, has struggled with the difficulties of teaching newly arrived students. A Baltimore Sun series last month on immigrant students at Patterson pointed out that many of them, often traumatized and with little education, wind up dropping out.

The series sparked an outpouring of help and donations from dozens of readers, who sent in more than $7,200, mostly in small checks. Patterson plans to use the money, in part, to buy curriculum materials and online literacy programs.

Teachers across the state, such as Margot Harris, the chair of Patterson's English as a Second Language department, are searching for ways to help these students succeed with few additional resources. Harris believes the answer may be a school for immigrants that allows her students to learn at their own pace. Harris said she would jump at the chance to be part of starting such a school within Patterson's four walls.

That is one of the models that is being explored as a new wave of immigrants arrives in Maryland, often from war-torn lands, speaking dozens of languages. Prince George's County has just opened two international schools.

"These different models are things we need to examine in the state," said Spinnato. Questions remain, she said, about whether that is a model that can be used in other school systems. Some educators believe these immigrants should not be segregated for long.

"It is a value added to have those students in the regular classes and not segregated," she said.

Patterson teachers, like others around the state, have had to adapt quickly to a classroom where half the students are immigrants struggling to keep up. So the task force is creating an online tool teachers can use to find background information on how to adapt their classroom practices and get parents more involved, said Heather Lageman, the state's director of curriculum, and chair of the task force.

But preparing teachers before they get into the classrooms also is important, according to Spinnato. So the task force will encourage schools of education in Maryland to weave into their classes some training in this area for everyone seeking to be certified as a public school teacher.

The task force had expected to finish its work in January, but Lageman said members have decided to continue exploring options for several more months. "We have a lot that we think we could do," Lageman said.

One subject that immigrant students struggle with is American government because they have little background in it. In high school, they have difficulty reading source documents — such as the Declaration of Independence — in English. But students must pass a statewide government test, or do a project, to graduate from high school. The task force may recommend allowing some students to read the source documents in their native language while also doing the projects.

Although it sounds simple, Spinnato said, "It is kind of ground-breaking for Maryland."

Testing is also an issue. Schools and teachers have complained that even though their students may have limited English, they must take the statewide exams.

Recent testing results showed that these students posted some of the lowest pass rates in the state. Only 3.1 percent of English language learners in grades three through eight met the reading standard. Yet schools and teachers are held accountable for those results. High schools are under pressure to graduate students in four years even though teachers say students need, on average, five to eight years to become proficient in academic English.

Maryland has joined other states to create a new system that would acknowledge the time it takes for students to catch up to their peers while still keeping schools accountable. Spinnato said one approach would be to chart student progress over a number of years rather than one year to see if the newcomer is on track with peers.

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