Yuly Cano, 20, has almost mastered English.
When speaking, she sometimes forgets a word. When listening, she sometimes needs words repeated.
Cano, whose native language is Spanish, said her last three years since her family moved here from Peru have been a challenge. High school is not easy when you are learning in a foreign language, she said.
Still, the state gives Cano and other English language learners the same amount of time to graduate high school as anyone else. At age 21, a student’s public school career ends.
With the number of students in Montgomery County Public Schools’ English for Speakers of Other Languages program growing each year, county teachers and school officials are talking about how they can make sure this vulnerable population succeeds.
About 15 percent of public school students in the county, or about 23,000 students, are English learners this school year, compared to 11.7 percent, or about 16,000 students, five years ago. The number of ESOL teachers has increased from about 417 positions to about 485 positions in the last five years. The population will continue to grow, and 22 positions are being added next school year to serve 900 additional ESOL students.
The school system has fallen behind the state’s five-year graduation rate goal for English learners by a few percentage points, and is working to see that they meet that measure in coming years, Woodson said.
The state measures English learner students’ graduation rates with a five-year cohort method, instead of the four-year method used for others, understanding their special needs.
Even with the extra year, in 2012, 61.7 percent of students in the county’s English learner program graduated within five years, compared with the county’s overall four-year graduation rate of 86.8, according to Maryland State Department of Education data.
The state’s goal for ESOL students was 64.6 percent, according to the data.
Teachers at a May conference hosted by the Montgomery County Education Association said that although the county offers a strong support system for its teachers and school staff, each student needs someone to advocate for them, and the school system needs a more standard approach to helping schools organize supports.
“MCPS is a wonderful institution for [ESOL students] to be at, and there are a lot of resources that the county offers,” said Cecilia Lewis, a ESOL teacher at Einstein High in Kensington. “... There is a link missing, and I don’t know what that is.” Einstein High had about 120 ESOL students this year, according to school system data.
Karen Woodson, director of English learner and bilingual programs for the school system, said that all schools are supported well.
The schools with the highest population of ESOL students are assigned a parent-community coordinator who helps arrange communication and resources for students. They visit their assigned schools four days a week and take the remaining day to visit nonassigned schools.
She also has a team of school-based and centrally based counselors, who work directly with students.
Her team holds sessions for parents, to learn more about their child’s education process. Staff and leadership are offered professional development to learn how to collaborate, Woodson said.
Since students in the program come in contact both with teachers trained to teach to their needs specifically, certified as Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, and regular classroom teachers, both must make their instruction “language acquisition friendly,” Woodson said.
With budget constraints not allowing for individual supports, the school system focuses on building the abilities of school-based staff, and encouraging co-teaching and collaboration, Woodson said.
To ensure students have someone advocating for them, ESOL teachers at the conference said they often become their students’ mentors.
Yu-Ying Huang, Cano’s teacher at Northwood High School, is so close with her students that they eat lunch in her classroom. They take comfort in the environment, where everyone understands their needs, she said.
Because ESOL teachers are expected, in their certification, to serve as advocates for students, they should be trained on how to do so, according to Heather Linville, a world languages and cultures professor at American University.
As a doctorate student at the University of Maryland, Linville is surveying local teachers for a dissertation on ESOL teachers.
In her preliminary research, she has found that while the majority of teachers advocate for their students by communicating with other teachers and administrators about the support they need, they were never trained.
“If we really think that this is a part of their work, we need to define it, and train them to do it,” Linville said.
Montgomery’s ESOL students come from about 160 countries, but about two-thirds of the students are actually from the U.S. Students in the program speak 131 different languages, with the majority speaking Spanish.
Cano is set to graduate in four years, which is something only about half of ESOL students do.
English learners are far more likely to drop out of high school, with a 26 percent dropout rate for the class of 2012, compared to an overall 7 percent dropout rate, according to the data.
Woodson is frustrated when people look at the statistics and think of English learners as a low-achieving population.
Imagine moving to a foreign country, and attempting to adjust while learning what everyone else is learning in a foreign language, she said.
The students are “incredibly bright,” she said.
Now that Cano is in America, she has big goals that she didn’t have before, she said.
She wants to be a nurse. And despite the challenges she will face, America is easier than back home, she said.
“I want to try it,” she said.