Half of Anne Arundel 's non-native speaking students struggle to keep up

Lauren Lumpkin
Contact Reporterllumpkin@capgaznews.com

Low English language proficiency test scores didn’t come as a surprise to Anne Arundel County school officials, who are adjusting to a population of non-native speaking students that is growing faster than the school system can keep up.

Forty-three percent of middle school students learning English are making progress in language proficiency — falling just a couple percentage points below state standards — according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education.

“When the numbers came out I wouldn’t say we were surprised at all,” said Shelley Hartford, coordinator of the county schools English Language Acquisition program. “Prioritizing the needs of our middle school students has been a focus.”

High school English language learners fare a bit better, with 50 percent of kids making progress toward achieving proficiency.

But with dropout rates among non-native English speakers sometimes as much as eight times higher than native English speakers, the school district is faced with a challenge. The graduating class of 2017 saw a dropout rate of 44 percent among students with limited English proficiency. The dropout rate for English-proficient students was 6 percent.

In a year when education spending is expected to rise, school officials are looking for a solution.

“One of the things that we look at with our students is their academic background,” Hartford said. “Many students coming into the secondary program, they have experienced interrupted education. They’re doubly tasked with learning English and learning academic subjects.”

County schools Superintendent George Arlotto is seeking to expand services for students learning English by way of a $2.4 million allocation in his $1.26 billion budget request. The number of students in the ELA program has nearly tripled over the last 10 years to more than 5,400 students.

That money, if approved, would be used to hire 25 ELA, or English Language Acquisition, teachers; 10 bilingual teaching assistants to expand pre-kindergarten services; two bilingual facilitators to help families navigate the school system; and one interpretation/translation technician.

The school board is in the midst of budget deliberations and will adopt a proposal Feb. 20. The county executive and county council have the final say on how much money the school system will get receive.

County Executive Steuart Pittman won’t guarantee he’ll fulfill the school district’s wishes, but he will “consider” them.

"Our priority is making sure all county students have the opportunity to get a quality education,” said County Executive Steuart Pittman. “And, if that means we need to support expanded bilingual services, that is certainly something we will consider along with Dr. Arlotto's other priority requests.”

County schools have 102.7 positions — all teachers — in its ELA program, said Hartford. New hires would help close large achievement gaps.

“That would move us in the direction of being able to provide adequate services,” Hartford said about the superintendent’s request.

There are several factors that contribute to low test scores at the middle school level, said Hartford. Scheduling issues mean students aren’t always placed in English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, classes. Inadequate staffing makes it difficult for teachers to meet with students.

Students with limited English language skills have traditionally been pulled out of class for individualized or small-group instruction. School officials are working to move away from that model, Hartford said.

“We’ve been pushing to have class scheduled for every student at every middle school,” said Hartford. “If we did receive additional staffing, that would be a priority.”

About two-thirds of middle schools in the district offer an entire class period of ESOL instruction, Hartford said.

As with any subject, different grades require different strategies. Tyler Heights Elementary School has one of the largest Spanish-speaking populations in the district. About 92 percent of those enrolled are Hispanic.

Most English language learners at the Annapolis school — 63 percent — are on track to achieving language proficiency, according to state education data.

Elementary schools across the county are yielding similar results. The system’s youngest English learners are making the most progress — 67 percent of them are on track to achieving language proficiency.

Hartford suggests age could be a factor.

“When you begin to learn a second language after adolescence, the process can be different. Our secondary students really need a lot of additional services,” she said. “A 9-year-old would natural acquire the language pretty quickly, given right supports. An older student will need more structure and support.”

Tyler Heights deploys an ESOL teacher into every classroom to co-teach with a general education teacher, said Quinn Swain, the school’s assistant principal.

The school is also unique in that it has a full-time bilingual facilitator, a school counselor, a Children’s Guild therapist and a psychologist.

“We’re constantly getting new students. It’s a very heavy workload,” said Angelica Vergil, the bilingual facilitator. “Any problem the parents might have, they will come to me.”

Vergil’s office is small but cozy. Her door, which faces the school’s main office, is decorated with flags from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and other Latin American countries.

The California native wears several hats. She translates during parent-teacher conferences. She helps parents fill out registration forms. She sorts out behavioral conflicts and attendance issues.

There are about two dozen bilingual facilitators who provide assistance in the district’s more than 120 schools.

Vergil said she spends a lot of her time helping parents complete free and reduced-price meals forms. More than 90 percent of the school’s population qualifies for the federal program.

Vilma Gomez Perdoma, 35, is one of the many parents Vergil regularly assists. She immigrated from El Salvador 11 years ago, and has an 8-year-old daughter, Katherine, at Tyler Heights.

“(Ms. Vergil) helps when I need help with paperwork or with a teacher, or if I need to speak to the principal,” she said, with Vergil’s help. “It would be very difficult (without Ms. Vergil) because we wouldn’t be able to communicate with the teachers. We wouldn’t be coming to school.”

The needs don’t stop in the classroom, Vergil said. Many students are dealing with trauma associated with homesickness, post-election anxiety, poverty, or reunifying with parents after spending years apart in different countries.

“It’s tough,” Vergil said. “I think they’re all just happy that someone’s here that can help them.”

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