Immigrant students challenge schools

Lack of staffing impedes teaching of English to new Maryland arrivals

April 05, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

A typical school day for Linda Castillo flies by in a blur and ends about the time the 60-year-old Anne Arundel County teacher notices she is exhausted and her feet are sore.

Charged with helping 56 children become fluent in English, Castillo delivers back-to-back half-hour sessions in her cramped office to as many pupils as she can squeeze into the six hours a day.

"It's a rush-rush job," said Castillo, whose work is often interrupted when a Spanish-speaking parent calls the school, Tyler Heights Elementary in Annapolis, or a nurse tending to a child needs an interpreter. "In that amount of time, you don't get a lot done."

The day-to-day demands on Castillo and other teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) are a measure of the difficulties that Baltimore-area school systems face in educating small but fast-growing immigrant populations.

Unlike school districts in the Washington region, which serve larger, well-established foreign-born populations and three times as many ESOL students, school systems around Baltimore are just awakening to the needs of this group.

The challenge is made more complex because the population is widely dispersed, with some schools having only a handful of such students.

"We're not even in the same league as Prince George's and Montgomery," said Susan Spinnato, coordinator of world languages for Baltimore County schools. "We're kind of in between. [The ESOL population] is only 2 percent, and Baltimore County has a lot of other issues on its plate."

The stakes surrounding Maryland's "English-language learners" - 28,000 students and climbing - are higher than ever, as schools for the first time face federally mandated sanctions if ESOL students do not meet the same targets on standardized tests as the general population.

These students arrive in Maryland schools speaking 174 languages and dialects. The most prevalent are Spanish, Korean, Chinese and English-based Creole.

Some foreign-born children don't know a word of English, while others can speak but not read or write. Some fled countries torn by poverty or war, where they could not get a regular education. Many are U.S.-born children who start school knowing little English because their families speak another language at home.

Local administrators, while supportive, face staff shortages, a lack of understanding about the work of ESOL teachers and even anti-immigrant sentiment among some staff members.

"There are some teachers who talk to the ESOL teachers and say, `You fix their English and send them to me, and I'll teach them math and science,'" said Jill Basye-Featherston, ESOL curriculum specialist for the Baltimore City schools, which serve 1,500 ESOL students.

In Anne Arundel, the thinly stretched ESOL department often takes a back seat to the school system's other needs, even though the number of English-language learners - 1,340 - has nearly quadrupled in less than a decade.

The department's request to hire six additional teachers next school year was 15th on Superintendent Eric J. Smith's list of budget priorities - lower than funding increases for gifted-and-talented programs and alternative education. The school board granted two new ESOL teaching positions, subject to county approval.

Even the better-funded Howard County school system is short eight or nine teaching positions, administrators say.

More educators are taking foreign language classes and making other efforts to better communicate with immigrant families. But the business of teaching English to this population remains complex.

Teachers "already have such a range of students in their classes," said Frank Edgerton, a Maryland Department of Education specialist in English-language learner programs. "To add English-language learners in there, it just presents more and more challenges."

Although studies show that students with limited English proficiency are more likely to drop out and have limited work opportunities, there are no state or federal regulations about how to deliver ESOL instruction.

Anne Arundel teachers give 30-minute or hourlong sessions to elementary pupils twice or more a week. But Baltimore City school officials say they could not deliver meaningful instruction in less than an hour a day, and Howard County school officials prescribe 90 minutes a day for some elementary pupils newly arrived to this country.

Howard and Baltimore counties try to employ one teacher for every 15 or 20 ESOL students in middle and high schools. Anne Arundel and city schools officials, however, say they can afford to assign only one teacher for about every 30 ESOL students, and some teachers' student loads - like Castillo's - are much higher.

ESOL instruction is further complicated by the settlement pattern of immigrant families: concentrated in some areas but widely scattered in others. Some itinerant teachers in Anne Arundel are assigned to as many as six schools each.

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