By Rachel Heller
In Arundel High’s ESOL class in room G110, English learner students can be found studying their ABC’s and numbers. Then there are students learning past tense and future tense. And then there are students reading books. The students come from multiple continents. Some are registered for free lunch. Others are below a high school education level. Each year, they take an English proficiency test that has steadily risen in difficulty.
Playing out are the complexities of Arundel High School’s English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) program—complexities that coincide with county-wide challenges as the ESOL teacher population struggles to keep pace with the English learner population.
At the helm of the program is Jorge Cordoba, Arundel High and Arundel Middle’s only ESOL teacher. After growing up in Bogotá, Colombia, Cordoba came to the United States when he was 31 with the Visiting International Faculty Program, now called Participate, to teach Biology in North Carolina. But when he arrived at McGee’s Crossroads Elementary School, he was told that they were in need of an ESOL Spanish teacher, an opportunity that he accepted.
15 years later, Cordoba still teaches ESOL classes, now at Arundel High School and Arundel Middle School. He has been teaching ESOL at Arundel High and Arundel Middle ever since the program’s inception at the two schools four years ago in 2014.
Despite the short time since the program’s implementation, it has undergone various changes over the years—including an increase in the number of students and the regional diversity of students—which have made teaching and learning English more complicated.
Cordoba says that Arundel High’s ESOL program started with around less than 10 students. According to county data, the number of English learners has risen to 50. The middle school has 15.
Arundel High Administrator Alison Mikeska says that the school sees an increase in the English learner population every year.
“When it comes to staffing and that sort of thing, schools like Annapolis High School have a significantly higher ESOL population, so staffing is going to go there, because the resources are needed more there,” she said. “It’s been really, really challenging because we don’t get enough of what we need because we don’t have quite enough.”
There are English learners at every AACPS school. Annapolis High School currently has the most English learners in the county, with 351. There are currently nine full-time ESOL teachers employed at Annapolis, including the department chair.
The Arundel High ESOL program has also seen an increase in the regional diversity of its students.
“[Four years ago] we had some […] students from Nepal, Vietnamese students and Central American,” Cordoba said. “Now we have almost people from 20 countries.”
In a county dominated by English learners from Central America–with 804 students from El Salvador, 255 from Guatemala, and 196 from Honduras–Arundel High has students from Africa, Asia, Central America, and Europe.
The regional diversity of the program presents its own challenge. Cordoba notes that it tends to be easier to teach English learners when they come from one particular region of the world, since the ESOL teacher does not have to employ multiple teaching strategies and activities in an attempt to help a wide array of cultures.
Meanwhile, on the county level, addressing the increase in English learner students has played a part in proposals for the Fiscal Year 2019 Operating Budget.
Over the past few years, the AACPS funding for ESOL teachers has struggled to keep pace with the increasing English learner population.
AACPS English Language Acquisition Teacher Specialist Meghan Gregoire says that since 2011, the county has had a 70 percent increase in the English learner population. The total number of English learners in AACPS schools is currently 6,437. Gregoire adds that the number of ESOL teachers is 98.5.
In an attempt to address increasingly crowded ESOL classrooms, the Board of Education requested $2.3 million for 30 new English Language Acquisition teaching positions in their proposal for the Fiscal Year 2019 Operating Budget.
On May 1, County Executive Steve Schuh unveiled his budget proposal. The proposal did not set aside money to fund English Language Acquisition teachers requested by the Board.
AACPS English Language Acquisition Resource Teacher Jennifer Saunders says that she is disappointed by the news of Schuh’s budget proposal. “To address an even higher student population with the same amount of resources is going to be a challenge,” she said.
In a statement released by Board President Julie Hummer, she said she was “alarmed by the lack of classroom resources contained in this plan,” adding that class sizes will continue to grow as county schools expect 1,700 additional students next year.
The County Council must pass the final budget by June 15. The Council may approve the current proposal, reduce it, or restore funds cut by Schuh.
On May 10, AACPS community members attended the County Council budget hearing at the Arundel Center to address Schuh’s proposed budget.
An additional hearing took place on May 14 at North County High School.
Among the students, parents, and teachers testifying to the council during the second hearing was Brooklyn Park Elementary School ESOL teacher Nannette Simmons.
“I thought if we asked for 30 [ESOL teachers] and got even half, that would be fine. But for [Steve Schuh] to come back and say none, I was horrified,” Simmons said to The Pulse.
In 2016, she worked at both Park Elementary and Brooklyn Park Elementary. She adds that since Brooklyn Park only had eight ESOL students, it made sense for her to be assigned to two schools. But Simmons says that this quickly changed in September of that year, when eight turned into 24 in a month’s time.
“We’ve just been building steadily since then,” she said. Simmons says that in the fall of 2017, when she worked only at Brooklyn Park Elementary, the number of ESOL students increased to 40. Brooklyn Park Elementary currently has 51 English learners.
Simmons says that compared to schools in the Annapolis area that have high English learner populations, such as Germantown Elementary with 225 English learners, the non-ESOL teachers in the area of the county around Brooklyn Park are not accustomed to teaching high numbers.
“The classroom teachers don’t have the experience or the training to understand, instead of having, for example, [English learners with low writing skills] write about your unit on crabs, let them draw instead,” she said.
“All of my colleagues are pulling our hair out trying to figure out how we can best support the kids, but there’s just so many hours in the day.”
The structure of the ESOL classes at Arundel High and Arundel Middle has brought forth another challenge for the program. At the high school, there are two periods of ESOL classes, both with mixed proficiency levels. Newcomers, ESOL 1, and ESOL 2 are grouped together in one period, and ESOL 3 and ESOL 4 are grouped together in another. Arundel Middle’s program consists of one class with all levels of ESOL together.
Arundel’s small English learner population, compared to other county schools, is the reason for this grouping.
Schools with large ESOL populations have separate classes for each ESOL level. At Annapolis High School, along with the different levels for ESOL 1-4, there are core classes geared towards ESOL students, such as ESOL Social Studies 1. Annapolis also has teachers who co-teach in English and government classes to help ESOL students enrolled in those classes.
At Arundel High, in one class period, an ESOL 2 student may be doing conversational exercises, while a newcomer in the class is still studying the alphabet.
“This is a problem … that is really affecting the students,” Cordoba said. “It’s the same reason you don’t have Pre-Algebra, Algebra 1, and Algebra 2 in the same class.” He says that sometimes he will need to explain topics geared towards ESOL 2 students that newcomers would not understand.
To suit the needs of the varying English proficiency levels in the classes, Cordoba usually opts to help students individually, though there are some instances where he will have the class all work on one topic. The advanced students in the class will sometimes become tutors for the newcomers.
“I try my best, the students understand,” he said. “I differentiate their work and everything.”
Saunders says that targeting different skill levels in grouped ESOL classrooms can raise a challenge for teachers.
“It requires more planning and preparation, so it takes a toll on our educators for sure,” she said.
Every year from January to February, Arundel High and Arundel Middle ESOL students take the WIDA ACCESS for ELLS online test to determine their English proficiency level. Students take the test each year that they are enrolled in the ESOL program. Students are assessed on their speaking, reading, writing, and listening abilities. Students take the listening and reading tests before the speaking and writing.
The listening test requires students to play pre-recorded listening passages on the computer, where they then select a response from multiple choice options. The reading involves reading a passage on the computer and selecting a response from multiple choice options.
For the speaking test, students play pre-recorded speaking prompts on the computer, and then speak into headsets to record their answers. The writing consists of students reading prompts on the computer screen and typing responses, unless a student does not know how to use a keyboard.
“The reading comprehension in the test is tough,” Cordoba said. “Some students don’t do their best in the reading comprehension, and they don’t get the high score required to exit the program.”
In Maryland, earning a 4.5 out of 6, previously a 5, allows students to exit the ESOL program. However, a recent increase in the test’s rigor, first affecting 2017 scores, has prevented students across the county from testing out of the program.
The change is meant to correspond with increased college and career readiness standards. English learners must show higher language skills in order to obtain the same proficiency level scores.
Gregoire says that last year, the number of students that exited the program in the county decreased by almost 50 percent.
While the test has made it more difficult for students to exit, Gregoire says that the students now have more time in the program to develop their English language skills before they lose the support of the program.
However, she adds that the increase in students staying in the program has again resulted in “a higher number of English learners in the program and not enough teachers.”
”[The test] is extremely difficult,” Cordoba said. “It has become so hard that many students that really know English, they are not able to test out.” He believes that some native English-speaking students would not be able to pass the test.
Cordoba says that in Arundel Middle, there are instances where some students who have been enrolled in ESOL since kindergarten, and are skilled in English, have not been able to exit the program because of the test’s difficulty.
This can lead to parents refusing the ESOL service for their child. “To be realistic, the problem is no longer ESOL—the problem is that they haven’t been able to pass the test,” he said.
Saunders also has experience with administering the ACCESS test. Before becoming one of the county’s resource teachers this past March, she taught ESOL at Annapolis High.
“I’ve noticed in any student group for any test, one summative assessment is never a good measure for a student’s true ability,” she said. Saunders adds that test anxiety or a weakness in one area of the test can hold a student back from exiting the program.
Graduation and college
At Arundel High, some English learners arrive to the school and enroll in the ESOL program when they are 18 years old.
Enrolling into the program at an older age raises a challenge for ESOL students, where high school English learners must juggle earning credits to graduate with gaining English proficiency.
“I had […] students, they were about to graduate in their countries, by different reasons they ended up here,” Cordoba said. He says that usually, these types of students are too old and will not be able to earn all of the credits needed to graduate.
Cordoba says that he has had an ESOL student drop out of Arundel High due to a loss of hope in graduating.
“He told me, ‘Mr. Cordoba, this is worthless, I’m not going to graduate, I didn’t graduate in my country, I’m not going to graduate here, so forget it,’” Cordoba said. “Sometimes it’s very, very sad.”
Mikeska thinks there has been an increase this school year in the drop out rate for English learners at Arundel High.
She says that many of Arundel’s English learners who turn 21 will get a job instead of finishing school.
“That is an uphill battle for us, and I think that unfortunately the resources don’t exist for us to completely combat that,” she said. “At that point, learning the language and doing our best to prepare them, even if they end up dropping out, is the absolute best thing that we can do for them.”
AACPS English Language Acquisition Coordinator Shelley Hartford says that when comparing the county’s English learner population to the total student population, “the achievement gap of graduation rates is very large.”
Hartford adds that the English learner subgroup has the lowest graduation rate in the county.
According to the Maryland State Department of Education, in 2017, 88.53 percent of Anne Arundel County students graduated within four years. The four-year graduation rate for English learners was almost half this percentage: 46.36 percent.
Some students will opt to refuse enrollment into the ESOL program because taking the ESOL class will prevent them from taking a class they need in order to earn credits and graduate.
Cordoba says that this leaves these students who do not enroll in ESOL at a huge disadvantage due to a lack of English proficiency, “but of course they need the credits and they want to go to a certain college.”
Limited or interrupted education
Arundel High has had students in the ESOL program with limited or interrupted formal education, also known as SLIFE. These students have limited backgrounds in reading and writing in their native language, and are below grade level in the majority of academic skills.
SLIFE students may have experienced limited or interrupted access to school for a variety of reasons, including poverty, war, or natural disasters.
These students end up trying to catch up on the levels of education that they have missed, while also attempting to develop English proficiency. This can lengthen the time that it takes for them to earn credits to graduate.
Arundel’s transitional math class is meant to alleviate some of these difficulties, but Cordoba believes that this is not enough. While he says that SLIFE students need more help, he adds that his schedule, where his time is split between the high school and the middle school, makes things more complicated.
It is common for SLIFE to face poverty or other difficult circumstances. Many qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The students are not given large homework loads because of the outside responsibilities that Cordoba knows some of his students must juggle.
“Some of our students, they live with an extended family, or some people in their town, but they’re by themselves basically, they have to work to fend for themselves,” he said. “They come here to school, then they work eight hours every single day … life for them is very, very difficult.”
Gregoire says that the English Language Acquisition office is working to suit the needs of SLIFE. “We do some professional development around best practices for working with these students,” she said, along with book studies for ESOL teachers and content teachers.
Gregoire adds that for students registering in Anne Arundel County from outside of the country, the International Student and Family Welcome Center in Annapolis offers additional resources to help these students adjust to the school system.
Going forward with the ESOL program, Cordoba believes that the Arundel community needs to be more welcoming of the English learner students.
He says that during Pride Period, there are usually only two or three non-English learner students in his room interacting with the English learners.
“[The English learner students] are by themselves, they feel isolated,” he said.
His limited time at the high school due to his time at the middle school prevents him from helping the students make friends, Cordoba says.
However, this will change with the coming school year. Next year, Cordoba says that he will work full-time at the high school.
He adds that two more changes will be coming to Arundel High’s ESOL program: the classes will no longer be grouped into two periods, and there will be a new ESOL 5 class.
Cordoba says that the new class periods will be newcomers combined with ESOL 1, ESOL 2 by itself, ESOL 3 by itself, and ESOL 4 combined with ESOL 5.
Mikeska believes that among all of the changes to come to the ESOL program, having Cordoba full-time will wield the biggest positive impact.
She adds that the ESOL classroom will be moved to a more central location in the building, so that the students are no longer isolated in G-hall.
The school will create an “ESOL department” as well, Mikeska says. “We’ll have teachers in each department that are more heavily involved in the program, and that way we can kind of infiltrate the entire program across the entire school,” she said.
The school has also discussed the possibility of getting student AMPs (Arundel mentor program students) that are specifically for ESOL classes, for elective classes that English learners are enrolled in or the actual ESOL class itself.
“I think that with all the difficulty that we face right here, we’re doing a great job,” Cordoba said. “Of course we need more, but this is just the beginning.”