Montgomery pupils speak a world of languages District links state aid, support for city schools

March 01, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

GAITHERSBURG -- In a rust-stained but brightly decorated portable classroom at Gaithersburg Elementary School, teacher Joanne Bliven is introducing four fourth-graders to the mysteries of the English language.

The girls -- natives of Guatemala, Ethiopia, Gambia and Portugal -- are struggling to add to their list of words with "id" sounds. They've got "lid," "middle," "kid" and "slid." With their teacher's coaching, they discard "nid" and grope their way toward "hid."

The scene in a Montgomery County classroom and the struggle in Annapolis over financing for the Baltimore school system might appear to have little connection. But Montgomery legislators say there is little chance for approval of the state's proposed $254 million settlement of Baltimore's school-funding lawsuits unless the governor helps the county shoulder the burden of teaching half the students in Maryland who speak little no English.

Montgomery, they note, is the state's most populous jurisdiction and has the largest legislative delegation. And it's rare that legislation benefiting Baltimore passes the General Assembly without at least some support from Montgomery legislators.

"Too many of my colleagues perceive Montgomery County as a place where the streets are paved with gold and only rich, white folks live," said Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Democrat who represents the district that includes the school.

"The county has changed with the influx of new population, and we have difficult problems that will be expensive to address."

Although its poverty problems pale alongside those of Baltimore, Montgomery County has become the state's hottest melting pot -- with all the benefits and problems that entails.

Drawn by the county's strong labor market, proximity to Washington and existing family networks, immigrants from South America, Asia, Africa and Europe have been pouring into Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rockville, Gaithersburg and even up-county Germantown for much of the past decade.

"It's all over the county, and it's a growing challenge," Kagan said.

Montgomery County was home to 7,357 of the state's 14,169 students in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs during the 1994-1995 school year. Prince George's was second with 3,222. In contrast, Baltimore County was third in the state, with 1,097, and the city had only 433.

Sharon Jones, Gaithersburg Elementary's principal, estimated that 120 of the 620 students at her school are enrolled in the ESOL program -- the second-highest concentration in the county. To serve them, the school has three full-time ESOL teachers.

"We have children from 50 different countries speaking 13 different languages," said Jones. "Most of our children who are in ESOL were born in the United States, but they have very little English because their parents don't speak English."

Spanish-speaking children make up half of Montgomery County's ESOL students -- a group for whom it is relatively easy to find bilingual instructors. But in many cases, ESOL teachers must instruct children who speak languages most Americans have never heard of.

Countywide, ESOL students speak 119 languages, including Twi children), Wolof (25), Gujarati (18), Ga (five) and Fang (one), rTC according to the school system.

Teaching such children is a costly, labor-intensive undertaking. On the day of the visit to Gaithersburg Elementary, ESOL teacher Lien Nguyen was working one-on-one with Jonathan Castellon, a second-grader from Nicaragua who was learning the English names of fruits. Nguyen said she usually teaches Jonathan in a group of three, but two children were sick that day.

Maria Malagon, Montgomery's ESOL director, said her annual budget is $13 million -- an amount that works out to almost $1,800 per student each year above the cost of educating an English-speaking child. Officials said state aid covers only about $500 of that.

Kagan, who occasionally is a substitute teacher at Gaithersburg when the General Assembly is not in session, said the growing cost of ESOL programs has diverted resources from other parts of the county's school budget.

She noted that persistent budget problems have led the school board to propose charging user fees for bus service and extracurricular activities -- ideas that once would have been unthinkable in the county.

Having seen the administration's willingness to provide funds to deal with Baltimore's problems, most Montgomery legislators say they want some tangible recognition of their county's needs before they will even consider approving the settlement.

Democratic Del. Kumar P. Barve, chairman of the county's House delegation, said there is a "strong consensus" that the Baltimore schools deal is unacceptable in its present form. However, he said, Montgomery votes are "gettable" with the right combination of increased accountability and support for the county's priorities.

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