Backward approach to ESOL: LOSE

June 07, 1994

Since 1975, when the Howard County school sysytem inaugurated its English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, the number of immigrant students needing special assistance in the county has increased seven-fold. With an enrollment of about 500 today, the ESOL program is expected to grow up to 25 percent each year for the foreseeable future.

Acclimating these students to the English language and to life in America is an enormous task. It is also one that, sadly, the county has not been up to.

The county's ESOL program has fallen behind other jurisdictions in the Washington, D.C., corridor. Howard County provides the shortest instructional periods for elementary and middle school students of any jurisdiction in that region.

About a dozen teachers divide their time among the system's schools, many of them traveling between facilities to teach students only once or twice a week. Some students in elementary and middle schools spend as little as 25 minutes a week in language classes, although a majority (75 percent) receive a maximum of two hours of intensive instruction each week. In addition, high school ESOL students are bused daily to the county's School of Technology for a half-day of English instruction.

This is not sufficient. As a method of teaching a foreign language, immersion has its merits; students are forced to use the language. But when used to extreme, this approach leaves children struggling behind their classmates. Various county schools have mounted their own initiatives to augment the ESOL program, including tutoring and buddy systems. But this catch-as-catch-can approach is uneven and not dependable.

The education of foreign-born students ought to be a priority, especially in a county with a growing immigrant population that prides itself on diversity and excellence. Fortunately, Howard County county officials are beginning to recognize the importance of the task ahead. Three teachers are being added next year to the ESOL staff. The county is also considering stationing some language teachers permanently at schools with high numbers of ESOL students.

Expanding resources in this area will be difficult, given all the competing demands on Howard's public school system. But ignoring this facet of public education could jeopardize something far more fundamental -- an immigrant population that is productive and self-sufficient.

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