Tongue-lashing For Esol

June 08, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

In a caption on Page 1B of most of yesterday's editions, th names Bernarette Dumorin and Yang Kim were transposed in a photograph that accompanied a story about a Howard County public school program for students who do not speak English.

* The Sun regrets the error.

Though it boasts some of Maryland's best-funded, best-performing schools, Howard County's educational system has failed to keep up with the growing number of students who don't speak English, advocates for the students say.

In a six-year period ending in 1992, the number of non-English speakers in county schools nearly quadrupled, to 431. In 1992-1993, only three other Maryland school systems -- Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Baltimore -- had more students who didn't speak English.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

That growth has swamped Howard County's 12-member staff of specialists assigned to work with students who come to school speaking Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, French, Russian and a variety of other languages.

Particularly hard hit are the 362 elementary and middle school students whose instruction falls short of the half-day of English classes provided to high school students each day. The students and their teachers say they're frustrated.

In some classrooms, regular teachers ill-equipped to deal with non-English speakers assign make-work projects, biding their time until the day a specialist is available.

Some young children are unable to ask directions to the restroom when they feel ill. And students who have only begun to learn English find themselves routinely bumped from language programs long before they're ready because those seats are needed for new arrivals.

Students who entered school speaking little English tell of classes in which they were largely ignored, and of classmates who taunt them.

"I couldn't understand the language, what they were saying," recalls Helen Parks, an eighth-grader at Ellicott Mills Middle School who arrived from Korea when she was in sixth grade. "I didn't know what was going on. It took a long time, but I slowly understood -- word by word."

Wilde Lake High School sophomore Eva Fields, who spoke only Spanish when she arrived from El Salvador more than three years ago, says she felt left out many times.

"Sometimes, I wanted to talk or ask the teacher questions, but I couldn't, so I just sat in class," says Eva, who got five hours a week of language instruction in middle school. "Sometimes, [teachers] give me work, but I didn't know how to do it."

It's no wonder they have a hard time, says Fred Pausch, head of the Columbia-based Up With Kids Inc., a nonprofit group that works with students who know little English.

"They can't talk to the teachers. They can't talk to the students. They just sit there."

"We're giving them a bad image of our society and our culture. I think we owe it to them and to ourselves to do something about it," he said.

Only 45 minutes a week

Critics say the school system has not allocated enough money or attention to what is known as the English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, program. Although the county spends about $775,000 a year on ESOL -- roughly $1,800 for each student in the program -- it spends more than $20 million a year, or three times as much per pupil, on its 3,600 special education students.

ESOL "has never been funded at a level appropriate to the intense need of the students," says Pat Hatch, director of the Columbia-based Foreign Born Information and Referral Network.

"If I had a deaf student, I would have someone sitting next to that student all day long. I have a student who speaks not a word of English, and that student gets help 45 minutes -- not a day, but a week."

Celeste Carr, the school system's foreign language supervisor, acknowledges that there are too many students for the system's ESOL teachers.

"As small as it is, we are doing as much as we can," she says. "But we're overwhelmed by the numbers. We're not providing as much services as we need."

Top school officials say they're sympathetic but argue that even a wealthy district such as the Howard County one can't do everything.

"The reality of a public school system is it must meet the needs of students as best they can within realistic budget constraints," says Dana Hanna, the school board chairman.

He agrees that ESOL "staffing is inadequate" but adds, "There are numerous areas where we are inadequately staffed to address specific needs such as that."

Even so, other school districts that spend less overall on a per-pupil basis than Howard County are doing more for their ESOL populations.

Baltimore County's 'clusters'

In Baltimore County, which spends $6,200 per student system-wide compared with Howard's $6,500, more than 300 non-English-speaking students in middle and high school attend cluster" schools where they spend up to the entire day in specialized English classes.

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