On any given day, Rebecca Koslowski goes to work expecting the unexpected.
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.
Parents stop by the office unannounced to see her, and when she bumps into ESOL students in the hall she knows their names, despite the fact that enrollment is approaching 200.
"Becky deals with more than just educational issues. They're coming to her with questions and concerns for life. She's an advocate, she's a counselor," Principal Ken Miller said.
In the first week of 2016, Koslowski said, Lansdowne got six new ESOL students. The Landowne High School ESOL center is one of five in the county and serves the Arbutus and Catonsville areas.
"Right now we're experiencing another boom in enrollment," said Koslowski, and that's compared to a relatively slow year for growth. Lansdowne High started the school year with about 160 ESOL students; the number has since grown to 191. The year before, the school started with 90 ESOL students and ended with 160.
Two of the six new students are from Syria, and one is from Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic, and speaks Russian.
"It's our first Russian and our first Syrians. So, that's going to be new and different," Koslowski said.
While the majority of the school's ESOL population speaks Spanish, many are refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma, as well as Urdu speakers from Pakistan.
It's impossible to predict immigration, Koslowski said, which is one of the reasons the school sees a need for additional teachers and counselors, something Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance calls for in his proposed fiscal 2017 budget.
"Staffing is No. 1, whether I use it in the classrooms or use it in wraparound services," Miller said. "It's just needed."
The proposed budget includes the second installment in a planned three-year expansion of the ESOL program countywide. According to the budget summary, ESOL enrollment grew 22.1 percent between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2015, without an increase in positions.
This expansion aims to remedy that. The goal is to add 31 positions; last year 10.3 positions were added, and in the proposed budget 16.3 positions will be added. Next year, the remaining positions would be added.
Additional counseling resources are necessary for many of the ESOL students, Miller said.
"I've had kids who have physically walked here, have been in prison camps," Miller said. "That culture shock of where they lived, what they had to do to survive and now, 'You're in America. Get to period three.'"
Many of the ESOL students work full time and their parents are overworked, Miller said. The International Refugee Committee helps the Burmese refugees with things such as banking and housing, Koslowski said, but for those who aren't refugees, the burden of support often falls on the school's shoulders.
"What the IRC does for the Burmese kids, we try to do for the other kids. Because if we're not meeting those needs, they could really care less about learning biology and chemistry, because they have so much anxiety about what's going on in their life," Koslowski said.
This year Koslowski also introduced a study course for ESOL students so they have a place to do homework and get help in regular subjects that they might not be receiving at home.
Strategies for success
Miller said funds are also needed for staffing in general to help keep class sizes down. While in the past they might have had three or four ESOL students in a regular class, now some teachers have a dozen, which has caused some changes in the way the school approaches teaching.
This year, they've implemented a new system guiding teachers to focus on eight strategies, an initiative led by Koslowski. The strategies are designed to help English language learners; however, Miller said that when teachers incorporate them into lessons, it helps all the students.
On Jan. 12, Antonette Amato's ESOL 1 class, the first step in the path to learning English, she had students do a matching exercise.
Instead of working individually, the students spread out around the room in pairs. They discussed answers before addressing the entire class. This represented one of the eight strategies — small group sharing.
"Kids, especially teenagers, have so much anxiety of 'What am I going to sound like? What if I say it wrong? Are the other kids going to laugh at me?'" Koslowski said. "Let them share their answer and rehearse it and then raise their hand to share. We like them being a part of the entire class."
When the class began, Amato did a warm-up word scramble. Students looked at jumbled words on a screen in the front of the room, and solving the puzzle, came up with vocabulary words for the day's lesson — character, plot, setting, theme and conflict.
Starting the class with a meaningful vocabulary exercise was another strategy. This gave students a chance to learn the meaning of the key words they'll need to understand a lesson.
Then, Amato handed out packets with phrases matching those vocabulary words and asked students to match them — "time" and "place" went into "setting," while "series of events" went into "plot."
That's an example of another strategy: showing visuals and real objects to give students clues.
In an ESOL American government class, also being taught Jan. 12, other strategies were being represented. Students would watch a short video about a president, and then the teacher would ask them to list two facts they learned. Short instruction followed by reaction from students helps breaks up the content so it's easier to digest, Koslowski said.
The lesson included a section on Andrew Jackson, who campaigned as the "common man." To check for understanding, another strategy, the teacher asked students for synonyms for the word "common."
If the teacher had asked whether they understood what a "common man" is, they probably would have all said "yeah," despite not really knowing, Koslowski explained.
Teachers also accept writing with errors.
"If they attempted and they were able to get their point across, but if it's not 100 percent grammatically correct, don't say, 'No, wrong,'" she said. "Use that professional judgment of, 'When am I grading for content and when am I grading for language?'"
Koslowski said they have also learned as a faculty that students from different cultures take notes differently. It is important for teachers to point out what information should be noted, or else some students fall behind trying to write everything down.
Koslowski said for next school year they'll look at the list of strategies, discuss what worked and what didn't, and amend it.
Koslowski speaks Spanish and French, so she is able to communicate with the families of many of her students. But the language barrier between others is disheartening at times.
The school's program focuses on English immersion, so she can teach a student of any language, but that doesn't help with the other parts of her job.
Her Burmese students tell her they wish they had the same relationship she has with her Spanish-speaking students; there are just some things they don't know how to say to each other.
"When you feel like you're not getting to every one of them, it breaks your heart," Koslowski said.
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