WASHINGTON – When Ilhye Yoon began teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in Anne Arundel County four years ago she had five students — today she has 34.
Her situation is being repeated across the state, where the number of ESOL students has almost doubled since 1995, with sharp gains in all but two counties. The increases are putting new demands on school systems and making nomads out of ESOL teachers, who now may have to travel between four schools in one week.
“You still have to serve them, even if you have to drive to five schools in one week,” said Yoon, who speaks English and Korean, but has students who also speak Spanish, Chinese and a range of other languages.
State school systems host students from five continents who speak 191 different languages.
Students who are not proficient in English, by law, qualify to receive special instruction in intensive English by a trained ESOL teacher. Ideally, such programs provide those students with a certified, specially trained teacher who works with the child in both small groups and in the regular classroom to support learning in English.
But the boom in ESOL enrollment has left school districts looking for additional funding and, as a stopgap measure, entrusting those students to uncertified tutors.
Lynne Ewing, ESOL program director for Talbot, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, has two ESOL teachers responsible for 219 students and had been forced to hire 16 part-time tutors to help meet the load.
Frederick County ESOL supervisor Larry Steinly has 13 ESOL teachers, only some of whom are certified, to teach 447 students. He has had to hire 20 tutors and enlisted the help of 20 volunteers.
Tutors are instructional assistants who have had some training in ESOL and work on an hourly basis for the schools, said Frank Edgerton, ESOL program coordinator for the state.
But they do not meet the mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act, the new federal law that calls for a “highly-qualified teacher” for every child, said Deborah Short, director of language education at the Center of Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.
“The students are supposed to have certified teachers,” Short said. “But, when districts experience a rapid influx of students who need ESOL services they often put those children with uncertified teachers or tutors.”
Short blames federal underfunding for the inadequate number of teachers. The federal government is supposed to provide for English language learners, but they “don’t have the staff to go out and see that all the districts are in compliance,” Short said.
As a result, “the government is more reactive then proactive,” Short said.
Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act requires that the federal government fund ESOL. But funding for the program has not increased in two years and President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2004 budget offers no additional funding for ESOL.
Delia Pompa, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, said that level of funding “is inconsistent with the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act.”
“Put simply, the president’s mandates cannot be met with outdated funding levels for one of the fastest-growing student populations in this country,” Pompa said.
But Jim Bradshaw, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman, said that the federal government is facing a tough budget situation that calls for tough decisions.
He said the budget includes a $1 billion increase to Title I programs that will benefit English language learners. Title I funds programs for low-income students.
But the demand is not slowing down. Edgerton said more ESOL students are arriving at Maryland schools every day. Of those, 47 percent of them Spanish- speakers, the largest foreign language group in the state.
Montgomery and Prince George’s counties serve the most ESOL students, about 20,000 students combined.
Karen Woodson, director of ESOL programs for Montgomery County, said the district currently employs 371 full-time ESOL teachers serving more than 12,000 students.
Woodson said the district is currently in the process of standardizing ESOL instruction. She said there are no federal or state guidelines on how much time an ESOL student must spend in ESOL, which can create inequities: Some students get more time with an ESOL teacher simply because they have a full-time teacher at their school.
“We would like to develop guidelines to give a student a standardized amount of time with a teacher depending on their level in ESOL,” Woodson said.
In Prince George’s County, ESOL coordinator Supreet Anand said the county has started busing English language learners from schools in remote areas to schools with a larger ESOL population, in an effort to deal with the surge in that population.
Both Anand and Edgerton said the students are coming to Maryland from all over the globe. Despite the challenges, Anand said her job is always gratifying.
“You never know who’s going to come through your door. It depends on what’s happening in the world,” she said.
“Right now we’re getting children from Afghanistan, students who speak Pashto,” Anand said. “It’s always interesting.”