Baltimore County Public Schools' enrollment has grown rapidly including an influx of new immigrants. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore County’s school system is absorbing a wave of immigrants that has fueled rising enrollments the past few years, adding thousands of students who teachers say are enriching their schools but also stretching the system to find additional seats and new ways to teach them.

Just since Oct. 1, more than 900 new students have enrolled in the county school system — and 710 of them spoke English only as a second language, if at all.

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The county school system has grown steadily over the past decade, a sign, Interim Superintendent Verletta White likes to say, that the system is successful and attractive to parents. But the large numbers of new students are also taxing the system’s facilities.

Change came quickly to Bedford Elementary, a small brick school set squarely in a neighborhood of modest, single-family homes inside the Beltway near Liberty Road. Just a few years ago, there were 15 students whose native tongue was not English. After an influx of Africans from French-speaking countries as well as Nigerians, that number has almost tripled to 42, or 11 percent of students at the small elementary school.

At first, the teachers taught those new students using the same techniques they used for everyone else. Now classroom teachers are learning how to incorporate information in their lessons that can benefit those whose native tongue isn’t English. This school year, teachers are adding pictures, graphs and charts to their lessons to provide students with information they can grasp without a lot of English vocabulary. Christina Connolly, Bedford’s principal, said the school is still working through the issues associated with teaching immigrants, but she believes it has begun to make progress.

“We realized that as a staff, we didn’t have the skills to support these learners,” she said. Her teachers needed more training and got it from the school’s ESOL — English for Speakers of Other Languages — teacher, Kate Matuszak.

“I have explained to teachers how a lot of our newcomers go through a silent period,” Matuszak said. Most students, she said, will go through a phase where they speak very little or not at all, sometimes because they are fearful of how they will sound. “This is a normal stage of second-language acquisition, and students should not be forced to speak until they are ready,” she said.

While some surrounding counties and the city are losing students, Baltimore County has been rapidly adding students — more than 5,000 in five years. That is enough students to fill a new school building every year.

More than half of those new students, about 3,500, are recent immigrants or children whose families speak another language. Five years ago, 3.9 percent of the county’s students spoke English as a second language. This year, such students make up 6.7 percent of county enrollment.

While the largest number of foreign-born students are from Central America, the newcomers are from around the world. The second most commonly spoken foreign language in Baltimore County schools after Spanish is Yoruba, a language of Nigeria. Across the system, students come from 116 countries and speak 97 different languages.

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While most students will receive extra help with English only for three or four years, research shows that it takes seven to 10 years for immigrants to become as academically proficient in English as native speakers.

National research also indicates that once those students catch up, they outperform their American peers in academic performance, said Erin Sullivan, the county’s ESOL coordinator. Often Hispanic families value education and will push their children to study hard. “I see the potential down the road,” Connolly said. “They are super-motivated.” Many of the Nigerians have well-educated parents who were engineers, doctors or other professionals in Nigeria, and are now trying to regain their professional status.

Matuszak’s time is split between two elementary schools, so the ESOL instructor has 70 students who receive special services from her a number of times a week, depending on their needs. Students who have been in the country a short time get more help than those who have been here a year.

Uchechi Uzoukwu, 10, came to the United States from Lagos, Nigeria, about a year ago. When she arrived, she said, she was really quiet. “I didn’t want to make a bad impression of myself,” she said. She had gone to a school where the official language was English as spoken in Nigeria, often far different from American English. Classes had more structure and discipline was strict.

Bedford teachers note that the Nigerian students must learn a different sentence structure as well as a vast, unfamiliar vocabulary. After a few weeks, Uchechi said, she felt at home. “When you are new, they welcome you,” she said.

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Rebecca Koslowski, the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) chairwoman at Lansdowne High School, needs to put the pieces in place for students from 20 countries to learn a new language, along with algebra, biology, history and art. In order to teach these students, the school has to lay the groundwork, making them feel safe and a part of the community.

She found comfort in getting to know other Nigerian newcomers. “You can talk your normal way,” she said, adding that they also eat the same kinds of foods.

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Ten-year-old Nigerian twins David and Deborah Okoawe say they are happy not to be in a school where they might be hit with a stick for doing something wrong. A left-handed student, David said he was always getting in trouble in Nigeria for not writing with his right hand.

While they seem to blend in well with their American peers, their teachers say the school’s newcomers can feel awkward at first. They will stand when a teacher asks them to answer a question. But third-grade teacher Anastasia Dean said that though her Nigerian students are struggling to catch up with their written and spoken English, they are good at other subjects. “They know they are very good at math and they like to show the other students,” she said.

Bedford has made other subtle but ubiquitous changes, identifying objects around the school with vocabulary labels in three of the languages spoken there. Above a small table in the office, the word for table is displayed in English, French and Spanish.

Nigerians are coming to Baltimore County, Sullivan said, because they already have family in the area and are in the country legally under rules that allow for immigration for the purpose of reunifying families. Nationally, the Nigerian population grew more than 50 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to statistics from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group. Maryland is one of three states with a large Nigerian population, and there are now about 12,000 Nigerians living in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

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Across the county school system, the largest number of students getting ESOL services are natives of El Salvador, Honduras, Nigeria, Guatemala, and Pakistan.

School officials don’t know the legal status of their foreign-born students. Under a 1982 Supreme Court decision, schools cannot deny undocumented students a free public education, and subsequent federal law requires states to give immigrants instruction that allows them to be academically successful.

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Russell Brown, a county school system administrator, said the county is trying to hire as many bilingual teachers as possible to help Spanish speakers as well as trying to add more ESOL teachers. Many of the English learners who arrive in kindergarten are second-generation immigrants who were born here, but are growing up in a Spanish-speaking household and need additional services to strengthen their language skills, according to Sullivan.

White’s proposed budget would add 21 new ESOL teachers beginning in July, but it is unclear whether those positions will survive as the school board wrestles with how to give teachers a pay raise in a tight budget year.

Across the nation, education for English learners has shifted from not just providing ESOL teachers, but giving classroom teachers better tools. “It is about all of the teachers having the skills to teach,” said Julie Sugarman, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Students arriving at a young age with some English, like those at Bedford, often will be able to catch up rather quickly compared with students who arrive in high school with no English.

Connolly said other students at Bedford, largely African-American, have embraced their new classmates, happily learning words in a different language and enjoying new perspectives. And they are learning that while a Nigerian might have the same skin color as they do, they speak English differently and eat different foods.

“I think we have become more tolerant,” Connolly said.

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