The five students in Tebbie Stewart's class hail from different parts of the world -- two from Korea and others, from Cambodia, Jamaica and Russia.
They have been in the United States for as little as three months and as long two years. The one thing these Mayfield Woods middle-schoolers have in common is English -- the need and desire to learn it.
The five are among a growing number of Howard County students for whom English is a second language. More than 350 of them are enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program.
This particular day, they're reading an Aesop's fable, part of Mrs. Stewart's lesson to teach them how to think critically and interpret orally -- skills they need in their regular classes. All of them are just grasping the idea that there are regular verbs and irregular verbs.
"How do you know which verb is which?" asks 12-year-old Song Yi, a shy Korean girl who barely speaks above a whisper.
"There are no rules to this," said Mrs. Stewart, an ESOL teacher for 10 years. "It's just something you must learn. If it's any consolation to you, American students have problems with irregular verbs. It's not only you, it's Americans, too."
The ESOL program began with 95 students seven years ago and is expected to grow to 400 students by the end of this school year. Korean students are the most numerous, followed by Chinese and Latin American students. More than half of ESOL students are in elementary schools.
Students spend varying amounts of time in ESOL classes, depending on their age and English proficiency level. Students from kindergarten to eighth grade are pulled from their classes for individual or small-group instruction.
Seven full-time teachers and a handful of assistants cover the 43 elementary and middle schools, spending their mornings in one school and their afternoons in another.
Some elementary and middle-schoolers get as little as 30 minutes of instruction a week, while others get an hour of instruction a day. Teachers and others say they all need more.
They're really frustrated because right in their own country they're considered bright kids," said Pat Hatch, director of the Columbia-based Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network. "They're treated as if they're stupid, and it doesn't take long for that to erode yourself, your sense of courage."
High school ESOL students are bused to the School of Technology in Ellicott City to spend 2 1/2 hours in intensive English classes, where they learn the basics, from conversation to vocabulary building to pronunciation. Two full-time teachers and an aide staff the classrooms.
Because high school students get daily instruction, "they learn English much quicker," said Shing Mei Altman, an ESOL teacher. "At the same time, they have so much more to learn to be on grade level. If they're in 10th grade, they have 10 years to catch up."
Students who have prior schooling and a good grasp of their native language pick up English more quickly, but it's still hard for them. "If you don't speak English, you don't know anything," said Nancy Comete, a Haitian-born 15-year-old who came to the United States two years ago. "When [teachers] try to explain and you don't understand, you can't do anything."
Although Oakland Mills High School sophomore Eun Hahn learned English in her native South Korea, she still had to take ESOL classes when she came here nearly three years ago. She has finished ESOL and is taking French as a third language. Still, she has difficulty with English -- especially reading novels.
"My friends need 30 minutes to finish reading two or three chapters, but I take two hours," she said. "It's really hard. Sometimes, I think I want to go back to ESOL."
For students who have never had schooling, or whose schooling was interrupted because of civil wars in their countries, it's harder. They not only have to learn English, but also have to DTC learn to read and write, said Peggy Wilson, ESOL project manager and teacher.
"It's a double whammy for them," she said. "They've got to become literate, and they've got to become literate in a foreign language."
And then there are teachers who don't understand ESOL students and the difficulties they go through. "After so many years of being in this business," said ESOL supervisor Celeste Carr, "I still see things that appall me, like teachers yelling at students who are limited English-proficient. The language teachers sometimes use is such that these students can't understand them."
Some ESOL students become so frustrated that they drop out of school. Ms. Hatch knows of two Vietnamese students -- one who has become a manicurist and another who has become an intermittent factory worker. One dropped out right before finals, and neither is in a stable situation, she said.
"The success of these kids is crucial to the future of this country," Ms. Hatch said. "The reason so many immigrants are allowed to go into this country is because they have skills that this country needs, and they have to be assured that their kids will get a quality education."
These immigrant children are future taxpayers who will pay the cost of Social Security and medical bills for aging baby boomers, Ms. Hatch said. "If they're not functioning at a level that they are able to support themselves, then our nation is in big trouble," she said.
The Board of Education, in its recently approved $203 million operating budget, earmarked money to hire two additional ESOL teachers next fall.
"Every time we increase a teacher like that, we're going to have incrementally more students," she said. "We're behind right now, and one more teacher won't be able to keep even."
"There's always a need for another because we have constantly growing numbers," said Ms. Carr. "In spite of that, we have done a great job because of our outstanding staff."
Some ESOL students who have been in the program for a longer time may get bumped out of class to make room for a newcomer. Some are ready to leave, but others would benefit with more ESOL class time, Mrs. Stewart said.
Ideally, there should be one ESOL teacher in every school to monitor student progress and to help them in other classes, like science and social studies, where students may encounter vocabulary words they've never seen before, said Ms. Carr.
Howard is one of a handful of counties in Maryland that have received federal grants to develop ESOL programs. This year, the school system received a $160,000 award that has allowed it to hire two content area instructors -- staff members who help students in specific areas such as science or social studies. The grant will also allow the development of a proficiency test and help teachers plan curriculum.