Va. Program Aims To Meet Needs of Immigrants, Refugees

By Peter Schmidt — September 11, 1991 4 min read
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Faced with growing enrollments of immigrants and refugees, the Fairfax County, Va., school board has taken the unusual step of establishing programs specifically geared toward students who were poorly educated in their native lands.

The programs, begun at five pilot schools in the suburban Washington county this fall, are part of a comprehensive new plan for dealing with limited-English-proficient students who arrive in middle and high schools with little formal schooling and often have difficulty graduating on schedule.

Before this year, the district’s English-as-a-second-language programs assumed “that kids come literate in their own language” and, once immersed in English, would transfer into their new language skills that they learned in their native tongue, said Nancy F. Sprague, assistant superintendent for instructional services for the district.

As it turned out, Ms. Sprague said, “these kids did not have skills to transfer and we did not have appropriate programs for them.”

Schools often simply listed the children as “auditing” classes or placed them in remedial courses where they could not earn credits toward graduation. Many of the students, Ms. Sprague said, were placed in vocational programs “whether we thought they were interested or not,”

New E.S.L. Designation

Last year, a committee headed by Ms. Sprague developed the new education plan. Taking as its chief goals that such students get appropriate instruction and earn at least a high-school diploma, the plan assumes that few will graduate in four years and most may take up to six.

Accordingly, the plan blurs the distinction between high-school and adult education programs so that the students can complete their high-school education in an adult education setting.

With the new programs, Ms. Sprague said, “300 potential dropouts” who previously had little hope of graduating now “have a good chance of getting a legitimate diploma after four or five years.”

The program is aimed at students between the ages of 9 and 20 who are three or more years behind in their schooling; had their education interrupted by war, political unrest, or traumatic events; or missed a year or two of school or moved often with their families.

It calls for students who fit this profile to be assessed, with the designation of “E.S.L. literacy student” given to those who cannot express themselves adequately on written tests in English and their native language or who fail to demonstrate an understanding of basic mathematics concepts.

Last spring, the district identified about 183 children in grades 7 through 12 who definitely qualified as E.s.L. literacy students and 118 others who possibly qualified.

Students in elementary grades who fit the definition are expected to perform closer to grade-level expectations and to be accommodated by special strategies and curricula while remaining in classes with students of the same age.

Links With Adult Education

The plan calls for middle-school E.S.L. literacy students to be offered courses designed to give them intensive English training and to meet their individual needs in preparing for high school.

For high-school students, the plan calls for special courses that will meet their career and educational needs and help them make the transition into the district’s adult high school diploma program.

A newly established E.S.L. language study class will enable the students to focus on acquiring functional literacy skills. The students will be able to apply other E.S.L. classes toward the district’s foreign-language requirement.

The plan calls for revised and new vocational courses tailored to the needs of 17- to 19-year-old E.S.L. students, who are deemed to be of particular concern.

Because many E.S.L. literacy students must work to support their families, the plan acknowledges that they may have difficulty attending school between the traditional hours of 8 A.M. and 2:30 P.M.

To accommodate working students, the plan integrates the E.S.L. literacy program with the district’s adult-education program. It calls for adult programs to have E.S.L. classes, and for high-school credits to be given to E.S.L. literacy students who take evening adult-education classes.

The plan is slated for full implementation in all of the district’s middle and high schools by next fall, with funding to come from the district’s current budget for dealing with its 6,600 students taking E.S.L. classes.

Although some bilingual-education programs in the Southwest have targeted similar populations, Fairfax County is among the first districts in the nation to tailor E.S.L. programs to meet the needs of unschooled immigrants and refugees.

Susan C. Bayley, executive director of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, said the county was able to implement such a program because of its large size and the large numbers of language-minority students in its population.

“Once you have the numbers you can do these plans,” Ms. Bayley said, noting that smaller districts will likely continue to have to deal with such students through their regular E.S.L. programs.

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Va. Program Aims To Meet Needs of Immigrants, Refugees


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