PIKESVILLE – When Louizze Tabada came to the United States with her family from the Philippines at age 10, she spoke little English and limited herself in class to asking permission to go to the bathroom or borrow a pencil.
She clung to a group of Filipino students who spoke Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines, greeting them with phrases like, “Kumusta?” which means, “How are you?”
But after 17 months in the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at Wellwood International Elementary here, Louizze is not only speaking English well, but she is able to read her favorite Harry Potter books.
“When I first came here I made friends with Filipino students, but now I have friends from India and Japan,” said Louizze, who still has a slight trace of an accent. “I like reading now. I can understand it better than last year. I like the Harry Potter series. I like the fantasy and adventure.”
Louizze is part of the changing face of ESOL in Maryland. A program once thought of as a service primarily for Spanish-speakers, it now helps students in Maryland who speak 232 languages.
A one-story, red, brick school, Wellwood, boasts of its diversity with a sign that says hello in many different languages outside the main office and international flags hanging in the lobby.
The school, located in a quiet middle class neighborhood, is a good example of Maryland’s increasing diversity.
At one time its ESOL program had a large number of Russians students, reflecting the influx of Russians who settled in Northwest Baltimore and Pikesville after emigrating from the former Soviet Union. There is still a noticeable Russian presence in the area – restaurants, groceries, even a video store – but for the most part the students have passed school age and moved on.
Today, the faces and the accents are Asian. Because of the recruitment effort in the Philippines by local hospitals, Tagalog is the main language spoken by ESOL students at Wellwood.
It was not until the 1980s that the state began identifying ESOL learners as a separate learning group. Before that some local school districts such as Prince George’s County and Montgomery County provided language support in the 1970s or late 1960s.
But otherwise, immigrant students had to sink or swim in regular classes.
Now most of the ESOL students are in the Washington or Baltimore metropolitan areas – Prince George’s, Montgomery, Howard, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Baltimore Counties and Baltimore City – which have experienced large inflows of immigration.
In Baltimore County, for example, the number of ESOL students has more than doubled since 1995.
This trend is mirrored across the state as a whole, where the number of ESOL students has grown in the past 11 years from 4,305 to 35,666, almost a 150 percent increase, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education.
And while Spanish is still the leading language of those in the ESOL program and their numbers are still increasing, there have also been marked increases in students who speak Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, French and a category called World English, or English as spoken and written in other parts of the world such as Jamaica and Nigeria.
But why is it growing? And what’s the story behind the numbers?
Supreet Anand, the state ESOL specialist, said that the reasons vary and it depends on what is happening around the world. Sometimes there’s an influx of refugees or people seeking political asylum.
Like Baltimore County, school systems with diverse and growing ESOL populations capture the demographic changes of a city or town like a photograph.
For instance, Montgomery County has seen growth across all language groups, but more recently there has been an influx of students from Ethiopia who speak Amharic, and students from West Africa who speak French and World English.
The ESOL program is not just for foreign-born students either.
In Montgomery County more than a third of the students are born in the United States, but they grow up speaking a different language at home and require ESOL instruction when they start school.
In Howard County there are four schools in Ellicott City where the top ESOL language is Korean. The other top languages in Howard County are Spanish, Chinese and Urdu, spoken in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan.
Wellwood’s ESOL program also serves students who speak languages from all over the world.
For example, some of the students in the program speak Japanese, Urdu, Russian, Spanish, French and Arabic. Among the 98 students in the program, they speak 27 languages.
There are 65 students who speak Tagalog in the school, which shows just how much the area has changed. In 2000 there were only 42 Filipino residents in Pikesville, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
William Burke, the principal of Wellwood, attributes the influx of Filipino immigrants in Pikesville to an international recruitment program at nearby hospitals such as Sinai, Northwestern and Levindale.
The program started in 2002 and the hospitals recruit nurses from the Philippines because of the nursing shortage in the state.
Amy Ward, recruitment and retention consultant for Northwest Hospital, said the hospital’s administration recruited nurses from the Philippines because their training is geared towards American licensure and the recruits speak English. This year there are 100 nurses in the program but 200 have been recruited since the program started.
The school can expect to see more and more Filipino students arrive because Ward said the hospitals plan to keep recruiting nurses from the Philippines.
The Filipino nurses have to work three years in one of the hospitals and Ward said that most of them stay in the area once they exit the program.
The hospitals provide housing for the nurses at Bonnie Ridge apartments about two miles down the road from Wellwood.
This is where Louizze lives with her family. Her dad is a nurse at Sinai Hospital. The family moved to the United States in October 2005.
Louizze is a shy girl who only speaks out in class when the teacher calls on her. Her favorite subject is math and her favorite food is a Philippine dish called Tocino, but she enjoys the pizza pockets they serve at the school’s cafeteria.
At home she speaks Bisaya (or Visayan), another language spoken in the Philippines. When she first started school she spoke Tagalog with other Filipino students, and now she primarily speaks English outside of home.
The students like Louizze learn English in what is called an immersion program, meaning the teachers and ESOL instructors only speak English to them. They are expected to learn most of the language in the classrooms.
ESOL students receive direct grammar and reading instruction from an ESOL instructor depending on what level of English proficiency they have.
Louizze had ESOL instruction five days a week for 30 to 45 minutes a day when she first arrived.
During her ESOL instruction Louizze learned grammar, vocabulary, listening skills and how to check her assignments before turning them in.
Now she doesn’t have the class, but the ESOL teacher checks up on her to see if she is having any language problems. She just took a test to exit the program two weeks ago and she’ll find out the results in the fall of this year.
Learning math and going to ESOL were her favorite parts of the day, she said.
“I liked going to ESOL because it was fun,” she said. “We learn new words and what they mean. We have a journal and we write about stuff and the ESOL teacher grades it and tells us how to use better words.”