Douglas Freeman High School principal Anne Poates visits a classrom of English as a Second Language students. (Photo by: Jay Paul)
Anne Poates was a Spanish teacher at John Randolph Tucker High School when the first wave of Vietnamese refugees arrived in Henrico County classrooms. It was the late ’70s, after the U.S. withdrew from South Vietnam and the Communists had taken over the country. At the time, Henrico’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) curriculum was in its infancy, Poates says, but teachers adapted to meet the needs of the new students.
Forty years later, Poates is principal of Douglas Freeman High School, and international tumult continues to shape her student body.
“Whatever strife there is in the world, we’re going to see it reflected in a year, two or five,” she says. Students at the high school represent 30-plus nationalities, and speak many languages. Spanish, Nepali and Arabic are the most common, she says.
Countywide, the school system serves students from 100 countries and who speak 80-plus languages, says Valerie Gooss, who oversees Henrico’s world languages and English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum. About 4,000 of the district’s 50,000 students are classified as having limited English proficiency. Some enroll with no English skills whatsoever, presenting a challenge for schools, which must ensure all students are prepared for the annual Standards of Learning testing, no matter their language aptitude. It starts with training, Gooss says, “to help teachers understand that it isn’t about using Google Translate, it’s about best practices and strategies.”
“The pressure our teachers feel to help these students be successful is tremendous,” Poates says.
In Henrico and Chesterfield counties, as well as Richmond, foreign-language students receive English language instruction from the get-go, rather than a more gradual switch from their native languages.
Non-native speakers comprise the fastest-growing population of the metro area’s school divisions. About 2,000 — or almost 10 percent — of Richmond Public Schools’ students are classified as English Language Learners, twice as many as five years ago, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Chesterfield saw a 48 percent surge in enrollment in its seven middle and high school English immersion centers in the same period. The growth in each division coincided with a sharp uptick in Hispanic enrollment, VDOE data shows.
Chesterfield’s Hispanic population boom largely has occurred in the eastern half of the county, along Jefferson Davis Highway, says Carrie Coyner, chairwoman of the county’s school board. One school that has felt the effects of the influx is Bellwood Elementary, where Amy Bartilotti works as the Communities in Schools site coordinator. Communities in Schools is a national grant-funded program aimed at increasing academic success and limiting dropouts for at-risk students. In Chesterfield, students with limited English proficiency are five times more likely to drop out than the county-wide average, Coyner says.
Bartilotti, who has been with the county for 14 years, says the work that she does outside of the classroom is just as important, if not more so, than what’s happening inside of it. In summer 2014, she helped start the Bulldog Bookmobile, a traveling library stocked with English and Spanish texts, to increase literacy in low-income communities along Jeff Davis Highway. Bartilotti also has started a GED program and taught weekly English classes for parents.
The outreach builds trust in the schools, and improves parent engagement, she says. “We’re purposely trying to create that sense of welcoming and connection.”
Her sentiment underscores something that Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden says is overlooked when school divisions adjust to demographic change: Making a good-faith effort to reach families.
“People often focus on the language aspect of the relationship, but what’s more significant, especially with the Hispanic community, is the cultural relevance piece,” he says. “What hurts and disengages them the most is our lack of sensitivity or willingness to embrace their culture.”
To that end, Richmond schools established a multi-cultural family resource center to facilitate the registration process for Hispanic families before the 2015-16 school year. It is temporarily operating out of Oak Grove Elementary, but will move later to the Southside Community Center.
Richmond schools hired Fanty Polanco to serve as its bilingual parent liaison over the summer. She is working with the Family and Community Engagement department, overseeing a series of workshops for parents called Open Doors. The first was held at Greene Elementary in December. Other sessions were slated for South Richmond elementary schools that have seen the most dramatic growth of Hispanic enrollment.
“When I moved into the United States, I came with nothing, no English … I know how they’re feeling, and I
want to help parents learn how to help their children be successful in school,” Polanco says.
Last year, RPS funded 13 more ESL teaching positions, a commitment the superintendent made in his academic improvement plan. Bedden says his administration wants to attract a more diverse staff to mirror the division’s shifting enrollment. Additionally, he says the administration has explored providing a recruitment incentive to bilingual teachers or staffers.