Bal­ti­more County schools are rapidly adding stu­dents. Among them are many im­mi­grants who speak an­other lan­guage

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Liz Bowie

Bal­ti­more County’s school sys­tem is ab­sorb­ing a wave of im­mi­grants that has fu­eled ris­ing en­roll­ments the past few years, adding thou­sands of stu­dents who teach­ers say are en­rich­ing their schools but also stretch­ing the sys­tem to find ad­di­tional seats and new ways to teach them.

Just since Oct. 1, more than 900 new stu­dents have en­rolled in the county school sys­tem — and 710 of them spoke English only as a sec­ond lan­guage, if at all.

The county school sys­tem has grown steadily over the past decade, a sign, In­terim Su­per­in­ten­dent Ver­letta White likes to say, that the sys­tem is suc­cess­ful and at­trac­tive to par­ents. But the large num­bers of new stu­dents are also tax­ing the sys­tem’s fa­cil­i­ties.

Change came quickly to Bed­ford El­e­men­tary, a small brick school set squarely in a neigh­bor­hood of mod­est, sin­gle-fam­ily homes in­side the Belt­way near Lib­erty Road. Just a few years ago, there were 15 stu­dents whose na­tive tongue was not

English. Af­ter an in­flux of Africans from French-speak­ing coun­tries as well as Nige­ri­ans, that num­ber has al­most tripled to 42, or 11 per­cent of stu­dents at the small el­e­men­tary school.

At first, the teach­ers taught those new stu­dents us­ing the same tech­niques they used for ev­ery­one else. Now class­room teach­ers are learn­ing how to in­cor­po­rate in­for­ma­tion in their lessons that can ben­e­fit those whose na­tive tongue isn’t English. This school year, teach­ers are adding pic­tures, graphs and charts to their lessons to pro­vide stu­dents with in­for­ma­tion they can grasp with­out a lot of English vo­cab­u­lary. Christina Con­nolly, Bed­ford’s prin­ci­pal, said the school is still work­ing through the is­sues as­so­ci­ated with teach­ing im­mi­grants, but she be­lieves it has be­gun to make progress.

“We re­al­ized that as a staff, we didn’t have the skills to sup­port these learn­ers,” she said. Her teach­ers needed more train­ing and got it from the school’s ESOL — English for Speak­ers of Other Lan­guages — teacher, Kate Ma­tuszak.

“I have ex­plained to teach­ers how a lot of our new­com­ers go through a silent pe­riod,” Ma­tuszak said. Most stu­dents, she said, will go through a phase where they speak very lit­tle or not at all, some­times be­cause they are fear­ful of how they will sound. “This is a nor­mal stage of sec­ond-lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion, and stu­dents should not be forced to speak un­til they are ready,” she said.

While some sur­round­ing coun­ties and the city are los­ing stu­dents, Bal­ti­more County has been rapidly adding stu­dents — more than 5,000 in five years. That is enough stu­dents to fill a new school build­ing ev­ery year.

More than half of those new stu­dents, about 3,500, are re­cent im­mi­grants or chil­dren whose fam­i­lies speak an­other lan­guage. Five years ago, 3.9 per­cent of the county’s stu­dents spoke English as a sec­ond lan­guage. This year, such stu­dents make up 6.7 per­cent of county en­roll­ment.

While the largest num­ber of for­eign­born stu­dents are from Cen­tral Amer­ica, the new­com­ers are from around the world. The sec­ond most com­monly spo­ken for­eign lan­guage in Bal­ti­more County schools af­ter Span­ish is Yoruba, a lan­guage of Nige­ria. Across the sys­tem, stu­dents come from 116 coun­tries and speak 97 dif­fer­ent lan­guages.

While most stu­dents will re­ceive ex­tra help with English only for three or four years, re­search shows that it takes seven to 10 years for im­mi­grants to be­come as aca­dem­i­cally pro­fi­cient in English as na­tive speak­ers.

Na­tional re­search also in­di­cates that once those stu­dents catch up, they out­per­form their Amer­i­can peers in aca­demic per­for­mance, said Erin Sul­li­van, the county’s ESOL co­or­di­na­tor. Of­ten His­panic fam­i­lies value ed­u­ca­tion and will push their chil­dren to study hard. “I see the po­ten­tial down the road,” Con­nolly said. “They are su­per-mo­ti­vated.” Many of the Nige­ri­ans have well-ed­u­cated par­ents who were en­gi­neers, doc­tors or other pro­fes­sion­als in Nige­ria, and are now try­ing to re­gain their pro­fes­sional sta­tus.

Ma­tuszak’s time is split be­tween two el­e­men­tary schools, so the ESOL in­struc­tor has 70 stu­dents who re­ceive spe­cial ser­vices from her a num­ber of times a week, de­pend­ing on their needs. Stu­dents who have been in the coun­try a short time get more help than those who have been here a year.

Uchechi Uzoukwu, 10, came to the United States from La­gos, Nige­ria, about a year ago. When she ar­rived, she said, she was re­ally quiet. “I didn’t want to make a bad im­pres­sion of my­self,” she said. She had gone to a school where the of­fi­cial lan­guage was English as spo­ken in Nige­ria, of­ten far dif­fer­ent from Amer­i­can English. Classes had more struc­ture and dis­ci­pline was strict.

Bed­ford teach­ers note that the Nige­rian stu­dents must learn a dif­fer­ent sen­tence struc­ture as well as a vast, un­fa­mil­iar vo­cab­u­lary. Af­ter a few weeks, Uchechi said, she felt at home. “When you are new, they wel­come you,” she said.

She found com­fort in get­ting to know other Nige­rian new­com­ers. “You can talk your nor­mal way,” she said, adding that they also eat the same kinds of foods.

Ten-year-old Nige­rian twins David and Deborah Okoawe say they are happy not to be in a school where they might be hit with a stick for do­ing some­thing wrong. A left-handed stu­dent, David said he was al­ways get­ting in trou­ble in Nige­ria for not writ­ing with his right hand.

While they seem to blend in well with their Amer­i­can peers, their teach­ers say the school’s new­com­ers can feel awk­ward at first. They will stand when a teacher asks them to an­swer a ques­tion. But third-grade teacher Anas­ta­sia Dean said that though her Nige­rian stu­dents are strug­gling to catch up with their writ­ten and spo­ken English, they are good at other sub­jects. “They know they are very good at math and they like to show the other stu­dents,” she said.

Bed­ford has made other sub­tle but ubiq­ui­tous changes, iden­ti­fy­ing ob­jects around the school with vo­cab­u­lary la­bels in three of the lan­guages spo­ken there. Above a small ta­ble in the of­fice, the word for ta­ble is dis­played in English, French and Span­ish.

Nige­ri­ans are com­ing to Bal­ti­more County, Sul­li­van said, be­cause they al­ready have fam­ily in the area and are in the coun­try legally un­der rules that al­low for im­mi­gra­tion for the pur­pose of re­uni­fy­ing fam­i­lies.

Na­tion­ally, the Nige­rian pop­u­la­tion grew more than 50 per­cent from 2010 to 2017, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics from the Mi­gra­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute, a non­par­ti­san re­search group. Mary­land is one of three states with a large Nige­rian pop­u­la­tion, and there are now about 12,000 Nige­ri­ans liv­ing in the Bal­ti­more metropoli­tan area.

Across the county school sys­tem, the largest num­ber of stu­dents get­ting ESOL ser­vices are na­tives of El Sal­vador, Hon­duras, Nige­ria, Gu­atemala, and Pak­istan.

School of­fi­cials don’t know the le­gal sta­tus of their for­eign-born stu­dents. Un­der a 1982 Supreme Court de­ci­sion, schools can­not deny un­doc­u­mented stu­dents a free pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, and sub­se­quent fed­eral law re­quires states to give im­mi­grants in­struc­tion that al­lows them to be aca­dem­i­cally suc­cess­ful.

Rus­sell Brown, a county school sys­tem ad­min­is­tra­tor, said the county is try­ing to hire as many bilin­gual teach­ers as pos­si­ble to help Span­ish speak­ers as well as try­ing to add more ESOL teach­ers. Many of the English learn­ers who ar­rive in kinder­garten are sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants who were born here, but are grow­ing up in a Span­ish-speak­ing house­hold and need ad­di­tional ser­vices to strengthen their lan­guage skills, ac­cord­ing to Sul­li­van.

White’s pro­posed bud­get would add 21 new ESOL teach­ers be­gin­ning in July, but it is un­clear whether those po­si­tions will sur­vive as the school board wres­tles with how to give teach­ers a pay raise in a tight bud­get year.

Across the na­tion, ed­u­ca­tion for English learn­ers has shifted from not just pro­vid­ing ESOL teach­ers, but giv­ing class­room teach­ers bet­ter tools.

“It is about all of the teach­ers hav­ing the skills to teach,” said Julie Su­gar­man, a se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Mi­gra­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute.

Con­nolly said other stu­dents at Bed­ford, largely African-Amer­i­can, have em­braced their new class­mates, hap­pily learn­ing words in a dif­fer­ent lan­guage and en­joy­ing new per­spec­tives. And they are learn­ing that while a Nige­rian might have the same skin color as they do, they speak English dif­fer­ently and eat dif­fer­ent foods.

“I think we have be­come more tol­er­ant,” Con­nolly said.


Clock­wise from left, third-graders Jonathan Al­faro, David Lamkin, Carter But­ler, Jor­dan Felipa, Felix Oue­draogo, and Kimora Lea at Bed­ford El­e­men­tary School. While still a small per­cent­age of the school’s pop­u­la­tion, Bed­ford’s im­mi­grant num­bers are grow­ing.

Fifth-graders, from left, David Okoaye, Koltin Cham­bers and Nathan Her­ron take down the flag at Bed­ford El­e­men­tary School at the end of the school day.

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