When Mohammed Choudhury came to Maryland as state superintendent a year ago, he brought experience teaching in districts with robust programs for students learning English as a second language. After working in school systems in Los Angeles and San Antonio, he found the multilingual resources here lacking.
For instance, Maryland had fewer dual-language immersion schools, where students can take some core classes in a language other than English, such as taking math in Spanish. And while California and Texas graduated multilingual learners at a rate of more than 70%, according to 2015-16 data from the U.S. Department of Education, Maryland’s rate was 47.5%, one of the lowest in the country.
A former English as a Second Language teacher, Choudhury took the helm of the Workgroup on English Learners in Public Schools. It’s looking at how the state can use the Maryland Blueprint — landmark state legislation that combines education recommendations with billions of dollars of funding — to Improve the experience for multilingual learners and their families. Currently, the Blueprint plans to allocate dollars to English learner programs, but does not address specifics of how to expand programs for this rapidly growing student population.
Those looking for change face several obstacles. Parents want to get involved but have no clear path to do so if they don’t speak English. Many of the kids want to spend less time getting pulled out of classes and more time with their peers and focusing on academic content.
“For someone who was born and raised and groomed in Los Angeles, was an ESL teacher, then moved to Texas, and just took things for granted in terms of how to work with English language learners, it didn’t take long for me to obtain that this is still a new phenomenon,” Choudhury said. “I’m sure before Texas got to 1.1 million [ESOL students], people had to deal with this growth of how to evolve. And so that’s where Maryland is at.”
In Baltimore City Public Schools, the English learner population doubled over the past 6 1/2 years. Eleven percent of students receive ESOL services, and that number grows by 15% each year, Director of Differentiated Learning Lara Ohanian said, making it the fastest-growing student population within the district.
Baltimore County’s English learner population, the third-largest in the state, went up 200% over the past decade, according to county schools ESOL Coordinator Erin Sullivan and ESOL specialist Xiang Li.
Howard County Public Schools have 3,900 multilingual learners, said Ebony Langford-Brown, executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. Through her five years in the position, she’s seen this student population group grow every year.
In Harford County, the ESOL population has grown more than 200% from 2002 to 2021.
In addition to the students currently in ESOL programs, there are former members of that group who have passed tests that show their English skills have improved, but are still able to receive related accommodations.
In Baltimore, the multilingual learner population comes from 85 countries and speaks 70 languages, with most speaking Spanish. Within the system, 101 schools are equipped with ESOL support, although the level of support differs. Baltimore receives refugees who resettle in the area from all over the world.
City schools ESOL Coordinator Maria Reamore said the district has expanded its training so faculty are equipped to help multilingual families. Schools with the highest concentrations of ESOL students are given ESOL coaches, staff members who help direct ESOL programming at the school, with four high schools being added to the list this year.
Next year, the district plans to add two dual-language immersion schools to the system, Ohanian said.
In Baltimore County, there is a welcome center where families register for school and students take tests to see whether they qualify for ESOL accommodations, which vary by grade level. Elementary-level ESOL teachers are assigned to each student and are assigned to areas based on where the students are enrolled. Secondary school students are assigned an ESOL center in their area, so they don’t necessarily attend the same school their neighbors do.
Choudhury and his work group’s interim report made several recommendations, including creating dual-language immersion schools and training all employees on how to interact with ESOL students.
Samreen Sheraz, 17, a former ESOL student in Baltimore City who now studies at the Johns Hopkins University, joined Choudhury’s work group in hopes of ensuring that students don’t have the same worrisome experiences she did.
Samreen arrived in Baltimore as a seventh grader in the late spring of 2017. As an ESOL student, she was exempt from state standardized testing. In eighth grade, Samreen, a student with stellar grades, was told each student would receive a composite score that would determine which high schools in the city they could apply to. An ideal score would have been at least 610. That December, Samreen was shocked to receive a score of 400.
Her ESOL teacher contacted Students Organizing a Multicultural & Open Society, an organization based in Baltimore. Samreen then learned that her exemption from testing in seventh grade had been calculated in her composite score as a zero. While her peers applied to high schools, Samreen cried every night.
“I had no place to be,” Samreen said.
Samreen reached out to community members, who told her this was an ongoing problem. She tried to get the attention of school system administrators, sharing her story with the media, City Council members and school board members.
Finally, one Friday, Samreen returned home to find her mother smiling widely. Samreen had been accepted to all 37 high schools in the system. Her score had been recalculated to 756.
The path for someone like Samreen to seek a score recalculation isn’t widely known, so she’s talking with Choudhury in hopes of changing that.
Ohanian and Reamore said city schools have measures in place to help ESOL students graduate from high school. For instance, students who attend the four high schools with the largest percentage of ESOL students can enroll there as eighth graders, giving them five years to complete their high school credits.
The ESOL struggles don’t stop at the students. Family members and guardians have their share of hurdles, from filling out administrative paperwork to navigating materials distributed by teachers and other school staff.
Mariela Rios sat down in August in the county schools’ English to Speakers of Other Languages Welcome Center, a first stop for many families of children who are multilingual learners. She worked to complete forms that would register her son, Abraham Marin, 6, amid flags and posters sprinkled around the center’s main room. He previously attended school in New Jersey.
A staff member asked for Abraham’s birth certificate and Rios’ identification.
“If you don’t have his birth certificate, his passport works, as well,” the attendant said.
“I only have the Social Security card,” Rios said in Spanish. “Is there an email I can send [the birth certificate] to?”
About 1,500 families like Rios’ walked into the center that summer to register their students. Additional students were assessed after the school year began. Last school year, there were nearly 1,800 appointments for ESOL evaluations.
Across from Rios, Bilma Pineda sat in a waiting area with her nephew, Rene, 16, who arrived from El Salvador in May. Pineda said she has lived in the United States since 2015 and understands only a few things in English.
She said her nephew felt anxious and scared to start school because he didn’t know much English, either. Still, she looked forward to him attending school in the county.
“The area is calmer [here],” compared with El Salvador, she said in Spanish.
The center is on the main floor of the old Catonsville Elementary School building. Beyond the front desk and the waiting area, students sit down to be tested on their English language skills.
Li, a county ESOL specialist and immigrant to the U.S., started with the county as a family liaison, putting her Mandarin to work.
She said the center works to make sure families receive information about resources available to them.
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Li can relate to parents she works with. She once helped a parent who felt as if he were looking through a window when it came to his child’s schooling. He wanted to help, but didn’t understand how he could.
“He needs something so that he can understand, he can hear, and he can listen,” Li said.
The school system aims to help families by providing information in a variety of languages — the welcome center brochure is available in more than 10 languages. The system also started an International Parent Leadership Academy in the summer of 2017.
Rios, finishing her paperwork, watched her son return from the testing area. The pair were summoned to a room to discuss Abraham’s scores and whether he would receive ESOL resources.
The staffer explained to Rios in Spanish that Abraham would attend his local school, Charlesmont Elementary School in Dundalk, for first grade. He had earned High Marks in everything except writing. Abraham would meet twice a week with other students in a small group for 30-minute sessions to help his writing skills. Rios was instructed to bring the test results to the school.
Rios felt panic about a change in schools after moving from New Jersey, but she had heard great things about the schools in the county.
“I wanted the little one to have another life,” Rios said in Spanish.