ANNAPOLIS – While the number of students with limited English proficiency is growing rapidly in Maryland schools, the number of teachers trained to work with them remains disproportionately small.
Elementary students whose native language is not English more than doubled in the last eight years — from 25,397 in 2000 to 57,060 in 2007, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.
But the department said only 1,738 teachers in the state hold certification to teach ESOL, or English to Speakers of Other Languages.
This amounts to one teacher for every 33 ESOL students, more than twice the statewide rate of one teacher for every 15.2 students.
John Nelson, co-director of the ESOL/Bilingual Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said that means that there are not enough teachers who are prepared to give students with limited English skills the help they need.
“As soon as you get an ESOL student, you realize that you have a new set of problems to work out,” Nelson said. “These students tend to be very enthusiastic learners, but they have a long way to go because they have a language barrier.”
That barrier is borne out in state assessment test scores: As a group, ESOL students score lower in math and reading than any other group except special education students.
Nelson said that teachers who have not been trained to work with ESOL students will have a harder time helping them improve.
“A lot of teachers are first somewhat dismayed. They say, ‘How can you work with someone who doesn’t speak much English?'” he said.
At the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, “We focus on how you teach whatever else you teach, but taking into account that someone you are teaching is coming from a second language background,” said Christa DeKleine, associate professor of linguistics.
Notre Dame and UMBC are two of six in the state that certify ESOL teachers. The others are Salisbury State University, Johns Hopkins University, McDaniel College and the University of Maryland, College Park.
The programs are small, however: Of all the new teachers graduated from a Maryland college in May 2006, just 45 were expected to graduate with ESOL credentials.
“The group of students who come straight out of a BA program is definitely a minority,” DeKleine said.
That means school officials look beyond Maryland for new talent, sometimes even overseas. Of the 98 ESOL teachers hired in the state in 2005, 50 came from outside Maryland.
“Maryland is an import state,” said John Smeallie, assistant superintendent of the MSDE’s Division of Certification and Accreditation.
DeKleine said she sees many more candidates coming from the ranks of veteran teachers who want to acquire new skills. She recalled large groups of teachers from Prince George’s County coming to her program for training.
“The percentage of English language learners in their schools in the past was negligible. And then suddenly they have schools that are 70 to 80 percent English language learners,” DeKleine said of the Prince George’s teachers. “So it’s definitely an issue that’s highly pertinent to them.”
The percentage of Prince George’s County residents who were foreign-born grew from 7.2 percent in 2000 to 20.2 percent in 2006, according to the Census Bureau.
Nelson cited particularly large ESOL populations in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll counties.
Much of the Prince George’s County increase has been in Hispanic students. The county’s Hispanic student population more than doubled from 8,911 in 2000 to 20,569 in 2007.
But Nelson said that while Spanish “is far and away the most common second language in Maryland,” Korean-, Russian- and Urdu-speaking students are also increasing their presence.
ESOL teachers take on the task of reaching out to every one of them.
“They are not going to be able to learn the languages of all the students in the classroom,” said Elizabeth Curtin, assistant professor of English at Salisbury University. “What they learn are skill sets that they can share with ESOL students to help them with English, so that the students can accommodate the new language.”
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