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Maryland lawmakers call for better education, more support for new immigrants

Maryland educators and legislators say that more services and new approaches to teaching are needed for immigrant students struggling to get an education as they adjust to life in the United States.

"I think it is abundantly clear that as hard as folks in the city are trying, we have long way to go to make sure that we are giving immigrant students a great education," said Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.

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The General Assembly may need a task force to examine ways to help these newcomers, said Del. Brooke Lierman, a Democrat. She represents the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood that includes Patterson High, a school with hundreds of the newcomers.

"It may be that we need to convene some task force or working group to dive into these issues," she said. "We want to make sure they can graduate from high school and have the chance to go to college and can get good jobs. We want them to be able to live the American dream like our ancestors have."

Ferguson and Lierman were among the officials reacting to Unsettled Journeys, a Baltimore Sun series that detailed the lives of three Patterson students from Africa, the Middle East and Central America as they forge new lives in Baltimore.

Across the state and nation, a new wave of immigrants is coming from far-flung countries, having fled war, ethnic conflicts and gang violence. Some come with barely any education; others are burdened with trauma from experiences in their homeland.

The series, Ferguson said, has sparked a conversation about ways to improve the outlook for the students — including those struggling to take algebra even though they may not have learned to read.

"The more services that we can provide to help ease their transition into our schools and our communities, the faster that these new American families will thrive," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement.

State and local school leaders say they have already taken steps in the past year to help these students. But with limited resources, they say, a collaborative approach that includes help from local, state, federal and non-profit groups is needed.

State education officials, meanwhile, are looking at ways to share practices that have worked at school systems around Maryland. "As a state we are looking at this because we don't have the answers," said Susan Spinnato, director of instructional programs.

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Baltimore County, which has about 4,500 new immigrants, is testing a new curriculum that will build students' language skills as well as their knowledge of American culture, said Brian Schiffer, who is in charge of the English as a Second Language program.

Schiffer said he believes more attention should be paid to the social and emotional aspects of teaching these students. He hopes to bring in organizations and individuals with expertise in dealing with trauma and reunification difficulties between Latino youths and their parents.

Although some students take classes designed for those learning English when they first arrive, Baltimore schools chief academic officer Linda Chen said most foreign-born students are educated largely by regular classroom teachers who need more training in dealing with newcomers.

These immigrants, once isolated in certain Baltimore neighborhoods, are now showing up in schools around the city where teachers are less prepared, she said.

Prince George's County, which has had a large immigrant population for years, has pursued initiatives that could be a model for other school systems around the state.

This year the county opened two immigrant-only schools. Alison Hanks Sloan, principal of the International School at Largo, said the schools opened after years of planning, and with the help of grants and funding from nonprofits. "We are creating a whole new culture and structure, a whole new way of empowering our students and staff," she said.

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The school has high expectations, but judges students on how much progress they are making in learning English and content rather than whether they have met the standard of the students in regular public schools.

Getting the new schools going — and coming up with needed resources — has been difficult, said state Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat.

"There was a struggle with the school board. Some people thought it was giving more resources to new immigrants than to people who have been here for generations," Pinsky said.

Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker said the new arrivals have strained a school system that doesn't have enough resources, and the loss of $20 million Gov. Larry Hogan cut from the proposed budget has made the situation worse.

Still, he said, "we've got to make sure that access to health care, access to counseling, and the resources from the state, local and federal government go into making sure that the children that are in our care get a quality education and a quality preparation for life. They have been through a lot."

In January, Maryland will begin working with seven other states to create a more equitable system for holding schools accountable for their students learning English — one that doesn't penalize teachers, principals and schools.

Under the current system, schools like Patterson can be labeled as failing if a significant percentage of their English language learners aren't passing state tests and graduating in four years.

Spinnato said the eight states want to create a system that is fairer, while maintaining high standards for these newcomers. The states would need federal approval to use the new system.

Baltimore leaders, including the mayor, have welcomed the new students and their families because they can help boost the city's population and economy.

"I think America is absolutely at its best when we are a beacon of hope and a place that is committed to helping all of our residents," Ferguson said. "Immigration is what made Baltimore a great city. We can replicate the progress that our city has seen previously."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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