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English language learner numbers doubled in 5 years

June 28, 2007|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY - The number of students in Washington County Public Schools who need help learning English has more than doubled in just five years.

At the start of the most recent school year, more than 350 students were described as English language learners. By the end of the school year, that group grew to 400 students - about 2 percent of total enrollment systemwide.

That number is up from the 159 students enrolled during the 2002-03 school year who were learning English, according to Gloria Maria Grimsley, supervisor of English language learning for the school system.

"It's definitely growing," she said.

Officials are unsure how many such students will be enrolled in the upcoming school year, but Grimsley said it is likely to be more than 400.

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Students participating in the English learning program are fluent in at least 24 languages. Grimsley said the most common language among students is Spanish.

Of the 350 students learning English in 2006, 100 claimed Spanish as their native language, Grimsley said.

The other most common languages are Russian, French and Chinese.

ELL programs are offered for prekindergarten through 12th grade, and Grimsley said many begin school unable to speak any English.

Pangborn Elementary School had the largest number of English learners last school year with 50, Grimsley said. Twenty-six students at South Hagerstown High School participate in ELL.

The average number of such students at each public school in Washington County is about 20. Grimsley said Northern Middle, Western Heights Middle, Fountaindale Elementary, North Hagerstown High, Emma K. Doub Elementary and Salem Elementary each have 15 to 20 English language learners enrolled.

Marly Metayer, 7, is a third-grader at Potomac Heights Elementary and is enrolled in the English language learners program. Marly was born in Haiti, and French is the language spoken in her Hagerstown home.

"We read books," Marly said about the ELL program. "And (my teacher) tests me on the books."

Marly was at the Washington County Free Library Wednesday afternoon with Grimsley for a summer program. Grimsley read with Marly in both French and Spanish.

During the past school year, about 170 students were immigrants who have been in the United States less than three years, she said. About 80 students are resettled refugees through the Virginia Council of Churches, which directs some refugee resettlement offices, including the Hagerstown office.

About 180 students are not immigrants, and many were born in the United States, Grimsley said.

As the number of ELL students has risen, so has the number of teachers dedicated to those students. While the number of total staff members involved in ELL has remained consistent at about 15, the number of teachers and paraprofessionals has changed.

In the 2002-03 school year, there was one teacher and 11 paraprofessionals. During the 2006-07 school year there were seven teachers, five paraprofessionals and three part-time teachers.

Money to support these positions is funded through federal and state grants. Teachers may visit seven classrooms in one day, often at different schools.

Washington County Public Schools will have two new ELL teacher positions in the coming school year, including one exclusively for Eastern Elementary School. The other will be split between Pangborn and another school, Grimsley said.

Those positions are included in the approved fiscal year 2008 budget and total about $100,000, according to documents.

There are ELL students at almost every school, she said.

"The goal is to get them to be English language speakers quickly," Washington County Public Schools spokeswoman Carol Mowen said.

Officials said students just beginning to learn the language will start at a basic level, but soon they are reading at their own grade level. That process typically takes a little more than a year. Grimsley said students who don't speak any English are able to have limited conversations after just one month.

Students with limited English proficiency are exempt from state testing for one year after entering the school system. Grimsley said teachers lay the groundwork for those tests with one-on-one instruction with students and small group learning.

After-school tutoring also was available during the past school year that about 150 students took advantage of. Officials said that program will expand this year.

After students meet certain local and state benchmarks, they can transition from the English language learners program. Those students still have their progress tracked by state officials for two years.

Grimsley said the number of students enrolling in the ELL program each year equals or exceeds the number who leave.

"About 50 exit every year, but we get just as many or more," she said.

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