When Yu-Ying Huang emigrated from Taiwan in 1989 with her two children, then 7 and 10, she saw firsthand what it was like for students from other lands to learn English, inspiring her career to teach English as a second language.
She's been teaching ESOL at secondary schools for 12 years, currently at Northwest High School in Silver Spring, Md., part of the Montgomery County Public School system. MCPS arguably touts the most diverse student body in Maryland and ranks in the top 15 nationally.
"I witnessed [my children's] learning curve and process."¦ I knew how their experience was with ESOL," she said. "I think that I knew how to help the kids be successful."
Maryland's location on the border between the North and the South provides a unique perspective where the suburbs, including much of Montgomery County, are a stone's throw from Washington. They are also sandwiched between the rural towns of the Appalachian West and the southern charm of the Eastern Shore.
An MCPS student has about a 7-in-10 chance of running into another student of a different race or ethnicity, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Like other school districts across America, MCPS's diversity is its best asset "“ but also its biggest challenge.
Resources are tight; budget shortfalls grow more limiting at the same time that diversity grows. Across the nation, educators are expected to shape the minds of more than 49 million kids in an environment where nearly one in five speaks another language at home.
"For us it's always looking for creative ways to bridge the linguistic divide and to be able to serve students who speak so many different languages," said Karen Woodson, director for the Division of ESOL/Bilingual Programs.
About a third of the student body identifies as non-Hispanic white; the other two-thirds identify as students of color. Of the more than 146,000 students, 13.1 percent are English speakers of another language. Together, the student body represents 160 countries and 130 languages.
For Huang, the biggest challenge has been to find ways to bridge the culture gap between herself and her students.
It can be a "daily struggle" to find the balance between allowing students to help one another in their native tongue while encouraging social interactions in English, she said. But seeing them making progress makes the effort worth it.
Huang, who speaks fluent Chinese and also Spanish and French, recalled a presentation by students in a Level 4 class, the second-most advanced ESOL tier. Some were students she had taught years before when they couldn't speak a word of English.
"I was almost crying, because I could see how much progress they had made," she said, later adding, "I just see that if a kid can put in effort ... they can still be successful."
While students with less English proficiency are taught in a separate class, Woodson emphasized the importance of collaboration between ESOL and mainstream teachers, recognizing that integration of language in classrooms is essential.
As America's melting-pot tradition increasingly blends more languages and cultures, it's easy for young students to begin embracing all things English--subsequently risking the loss of their native tongue.
According to a recent survey, two-thirds of Hispanics aged 18 to 29 say they prefer to speak only or mostly in English.
Most of the county's ESOL students are U.S.-born Spanish speakers, Woodson said.
Huang said she supported her students' efforts to keep their native language as they learn English.
"I'm a strong believer of having the kids maintain their first language," she said. "When I teach my own two kids, I do not speak English to them even though they're here and were learning English. We just keep speaking Chinese at home."
Educators are quick to mention various studies, which in sum find that bilingual children have more cognition skills, including including logistical thinking and multitasking.
In the battle to preserve heritage, other schools of thought have emerged to teach English-language learners.
Dual-language schools were formed to help ESOL students preserve their native language while giving English-speaking students a chance to become fluent in a second tongue. Supporters maintain that learning in two languages boosts academic achievement, but schools across Maryland have been slow to adopt dual-language programs. Finding only two in the state, a 2009 state task force recommended 10 more programs be created by 2012.
In the MCPS system, Kemp Mill Elementary in Silver Spring is the only school that offers a dual-language program it. It is not part of the county's ESOL division. Half of its students speak English, while the other half speak Spanish. Instruction is in both languages.
"A lot of people look at bilingual programs in general as being wonderful because they're helping the student maintain their heritage language," said Floyd Starnes, the school's principal. "But what the general public doesn't know "¦ is that their English is better."
Critics of the program say that bilingual schools encourage students to rely on their native tongue rather than becoming fluent in English. Some others also say it's an unnecessary drain from struggling education budgets.
Montgomery County, however, has a unique position as one of the wealthiest counties in the state. Nationally, it slides into 12th place with a median household income of $89,155, according to a D.C. radio station's breakdown of Census data. (WTOP.)
In contrast, Allegany County in western Maryland has a median household income of $37,083, and to the east, Baltimore City is at $38,186, according to census data.
This past year, MCPS spent $44.5 million, or 2 percent of its budget, on ESOL. It expects to spend about $48.7 million next year, according to the state Office of Management, Budget and Planning.
The combination of a racially diverse population and the county's affluence is slowly changing the landscape of the suburban county. Woodson says that the ESOL department has noticed, and it's been making changes in anticipation of growing foreign-born populations and their children.
"They used to say that every teacher is a reading teacher," Woodson said. "But it's getting clearer that ... every teacher is an ESOL teacher."
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.
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