"What have we been working on over the past few days?" teacher John Arnold asked the students in his Centennial High School ESOL class. "What kinds of words have we been learning?"
There was a long pause as the three students - Gwan Young Moon, 15, Caylie Zhang, 14, and Steve Seo, 15 - groped for the answers. Finally, Seo, a native of Korea, spoke. "Nouns, verbs and adjectives," he said, speaking slowly.
For the first time, Seo and about 25 other students who are not native English speakers can learn the language at Centennial, their neighborhood high school. Previously, they would have attended River Hill or Long Reach because Centennial had no ESOL program. ESOL stands for English for Speakers of Other Languages.
With the addition this year of an ESOL program at Centennial, four high schools in the county system lack such a program: Glenelg, Marriotts Ridge, Atholton and Howard, said Deborah Espitia, coordinator of ESOL and world languages programs for the county school system.
The five ESOL students in the Glenelg community go to River Hill, the two that would be at Marriotts Ridge go to Mount Hebron, the four at Atholton go to Wilde Lake, and the 15 or so at Howard go to Long Reach, she said.
"We're keeping an eye on that," Espitia said of the Howard population. Typically, when a school has 15 or more students in need of an ESOL program, the county considers bringing the program to the school, she said.
That is what happened at Centennial. "We noted that there were a significant number of students whose home school was Centennial," said Espitia.
Arnold teaches the students who are the least familiar with English, while teacher Candice Nogueira works with the more advanced English-speakers. Another ESOL category, "newcomer," does not exist at Centennial.
Arnold's students spend three periods a day in his classroom, which takes the place of history, language arts and social studies. Nogueira's students take her class as an elective. The two, along with paraeducator Catherine Afra, also sometimes provide assistance in other classrooms.
Though all are versed in other languages, the ESOL program is conducted entirely in English. "It's an English-only model," said Arnold, a certified German teacher.
"Spanish is my language background," said Nogueira, "but at Centennial it doesn't help at all because nobody speaks Spanish."
At Centennial, as in many Howard County schools, most of the students in the ESOL program are from Korea or China. The school also has students from Thailand, Iran, Ethiopia and the Philippines, said Arnold. One brother-sister pair, Andy and Young Kim, are from Korea but lived in Australia for three years before moving to Maryland.
They are in Nogueira's class for help understanding English with an American accent.
As part of a literature lesson, Arnold led the students through a poem called The Way to Start a Day, by Byrd Baylor, encouraging them to picture the images as he read out loud. "Form the pictures in your head of what you hear," he said.
He stopped often to explain the meanings of words. "A pharaoh is a name for the king of Egypt. Can you get that picture in your head?" he asked.
Then he dimmed the lights and projected photographs on a screen that corresponded to words in the poem. "You can read to yourself, but make sure you're looking at the pictures," he said.
Meanwhile, in Nogueira's class next door, the six students were asked to write opinion sentences - example: The school buses should be air-conditioned - then write three sentences to support those opinions. "If you can't think of three, then you'll know that it's not the best topic for you to write about," Nogueira said.
Howard County's history with ESOL dates to 1975, said Espitia, when teacher Peggy Wilson was hired on a contract basis to teach English to refugees from Vietnam. "I don't think they expected back then that the program would last for too long," she said. Wilson retired last year, Espitia said.
Now, every elementary and middle school in the system has an ESOL program, said Espitia, as do most high schools.
Derrick Park, 17, left Korea 2 1/2 years ago, he said, and is now a junior at Centennial High. He went to River Hill last year, but he likes it better at Centennial. "It's my local school," he said.