- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Immigrants seeking jobs at poultry plants in the rural Shenandoah Valley over the last decade have created an increase in the number of persons who don’t speak English as their native language and a demand for qualified teachers.

About 35 percent of the 4,000 students in Harrisonburg’s public schools are not primary English speakers and 65 percent of them are Hispanic, according to school records.

When Terri Gehman started teaching first grade at Stone Spring Elementary School 10 years ago, there was one part-time specialist in teaching English as a second language, or ESL.

“Now there are five of us, full-time teachers and one assistant, who just works with kindergarten,” said Miss Gehman, who now teaches kindergarten and first-grade classes.

Among the concerns, Miss Gehman said, is that many ESL students born in the United States do not have a preschool experience or books in their homes before entering kindergarten, where they try to tackle basic reading skills.

Another concern is that schools need enough staffers to work in small groups, so children can receive more attention and feel more comfortable speaking.

The system has 24 ESL teachers and 27 aides instructing 1,468 English learners, said Superintendent Donald Ford.

At a recent regional job fair at Harrisonburg High School, recruiters aggressively pursued candidates who had “Spanish” or “ESL” written on their name tags.

“When I first came in today I was afraid to put on my badge because of the interest,” said Patrice Seko, who majored in Spanish and had a minor in ESL studies. She is now finishing her master’s in education at nearby James Madison University.

Miss Seko, who is student-teaching Spanish and ESL at a city school, is seeking a job in an area with a large Hispanic population. She’s looking at Harrisonburg or Charlottesville.

Rural communities such as Harrisonburg must compete with many other school systems — including those with more established ESL programs and better pay scales — for Miss Seko and other bilingual candidates. Harrisonburg’s teacher salaries range from $33,450 to $56,000, officials said.

The school district also is working with James Madison and Eastern Mennonite universities and schools in the metropolitan area to identify potential candidates.

Deborah Short of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a language-research group, said areas such as the Shenandoah Valley have not had years to develop programs for Spanish-speaking students, compared to such areas as Arlington and Alexandria.

“In the more rural areas, they don’t have a history of continual immigration,” she said.

Another problem is the increasing number of immigrant students who are “under-schooled,” or have educational deficits because they come from rural or war-torn regions in which children attend school intermittently or not at all.

“They cannot read in any language, let alone English,” Miss Short said.

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