A Project for Better Journalism chapter

ESOL program proves necessary in smooth transition for students

At first glance, one thing that people may see about Parkdale is the diversity of its students. With the third biggest ESOL program in the county, the ESOL population makes up roughly 25 percent of the school. ESOL stands for English to Speakers of Other Languages. It boasts students who speak Spanish, French, Pashto, Yoruba, and much more. But what exactly does the ESOL program do for its students? 

According to Ms. Turner, the ESOL instructional lead teacher, there are about 1,600 students enrolled in the ESOL program at Parkdale. The program helps English language learners to acquire different language skills, facilitate the acquisition of the English language and increase student achievement.

“The classes for these students are arranged quite differently than our regular classes,” she explained. “In ESOL English, and Math classes, the students are not separated by grades but rather it is a mix; meaning there is no Freshman English class, so the options become either beginner’s, intermediate or advanced English class which accommodates freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors all in the same class.

While a little different than general education classes, the ESOL program is looking to help students achieve just as much.

“The ESOL program is helping me prepare for life after high school and I plan to join the soccer team next year,” said sophomre Steve Wambou, a student enrolled in the ESOL program.

ESOL students, just like any other students, have to meet their graduation requirements in terms of credits to be able to graduate. Apart from their ESOL-required classes, students take electives of their choice where they interact with non-ESOL students and deal with teachers who may sometimes speak too fast for them to understand or that can’t even translate if they don’t understand something. 

The English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program began in the late 1960s as a natural outgrowth of the reading program. At that time, Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students were beginning to be enrolled in the school system in larger numbers. The number of English Language Learners (ELL) has grown in the state of Maryland, and Prince George’s County has the largest proportion of English Learners (EL) students.

Knowing all this data, the big question becomes: How does one even get into the ESOL program or become an ESOL student? Well, there are two types of ESOL students: those who came in the United States from another country and those who were already born here.

The International Student Admissions and Enrollment Office assists in enrolling foreign-born students and English language learners. These students are tested by either being asked to write a letter to a friend given a certain prompt, or given a paper test to evaluate their writing, reading and math skills to determine if they will go into the ESOL program or if they are proficient enough to go to general classes.

In addItion if newcomer students went to school in their previous country, their grades are evaluated to determine what grade they will be placed in. Meanwhile, for students who are born in the U.S., it heavily depends on the language the parents speak and what language is spoken at home. If the parents receive translated phone calls and emails, and if there is an older sibling in the family already in ESOL, the younger sibling is more likely to start school in the ESOL program, too. 

“In order to exit ESOL, the students have to take the WIDA online test where they need to demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing, speaking and listening, with at least a score of 4.5” said Ms. Turner.

Some students can speak and listen to the English language very well, but since reading and writing makes up 70 percent of the test, it prevents many students from exiting the program. Why is that, one might ask? Since about half of ESOL students were born here, speaking English isn’t a problem for them since they already speak that at school and with friends, but it is less likely to find friends together just writing in English unless they have to do that at school. For both foreign-born and natives, when texting, they use acronyms, slangs and abbreviations opposed to using full sentences, so that reflects poorly on their writing.

The exit rate for the school is quite low at the moment, at just five percent, because there is a variety of students just as there is for the language. While there are students who just have to deal with translating what they are taught to understand, there are others who have never been to school, so the language is not only what’s new to them, but mostly how they’re adapting to the education, school system, and scheduling.

Ms. Turner hopes that moving forward, the students will score higher in their tests, so as to increase the exit rate

“First we want to increase [test scores] because the majority of the students are doing way beyond that,” she explained. “Secondly that more support is given to newcomers and aim students.”