- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2001

Some Peace Corps volunteers will take on a new international assignment this year — helping out immigrant students in two Montgomery County, Maryland, schools.

Roughly 50 volunteers will work with parents and students enrolled in English as a second language, or ESL, courses at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park and Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring.

With an ESL program that extends to 30 percent of Rolling Terrace's 750 students, many of them Latino, the volunteers' work will be more than a helpful gesture.

"The program is so large that we need lots of pairs of hands," Principal A. Robyn Mathias said.

In fact, pairs of hands in ESL classrooms are needed all over the state, as swelling immigrant populations test the resources of language education programs for county school systems.

New census data estimate that nearly 13 percent of Maryland's population speak a language other than English at home. That was up from 9 percent who spoke a foreign language at home in 1990.

The new figures come from a supplementary survey distributed to 700,000 households in 1,203 counties nationwide. Administered at the same time as Census 2000, the survey gives estimates for topics ranging from household incomes to the number of homes without plumbing.

The survey is a preview, but not a substitute, for the 2000 long form data due out next spring.

The growth in non-English-speaking households means more children enter the school system without the language skills they need.

A study by the Maryland Department of Education found that ESL enrollments grew by 33 percent between 1997 and 2001, with roughly 23,900 students in ESL programs at the end of this school year. Those ESL students spoke 124 different languages among them.

But while counties like Montgomery and Prince George's have had large ESL populations for many years, those outside the Washington area have seen a surprising jump in their numbers over only the past five years.

Frederick County had a 71 percent increase to 496 students in 2001; Talbot grew 68 percent to 88 students; and Baltimore County experienced a 28 percent increase to 1,848 students.

"We used to see small numbers of ESL students in districts other than Montgomery and Prince George's, but nothing compared to the extent we see now in areas outside the Washington region," said Holly Stein, faculty member with the University of Maryland-Baltimore County's ESL teacher training program.

That means counties that used to devote few resources to ESL now find themselves with a high demand for teachers, ESL books, class space and other resources.

The state helps out with funds under the School Accountability Funding for Excellence program, known as SAFE. The state will disburse $30 million in mostly SAFE funds to the counties in the upcoming school year, said Frank Edgerton, a specialist in second language learning with the state education department.

But the biggest challenge schools face — and one with which districts struggle nationwide — is finding enough qualified teachers to handle the expanding ESL classes.

"There is a shortage of certified ESL teachers in Maryland; that has been true for a few years. ESL continues to be a critical area," he said. "We just don't graduate enough in this state to be able to handle the needs."

The demand is so great that students at UMBC's ESL master's degree program often are hired before they complete their student teaching, program coordinator Ron Schwartz said.

Mr. Schwartz and Miss Stein were hired by Frederick County to evaluate the school system's ESL program, which experienced some growing pains because of the rapid influx of students.

The report, released in June, said the county needed to hire more certified teachers and to address overcrowded ESL classrooms.

"Frederick is going through the same problem as everyone else. They've got a great influx of students and they can't find certified teachers," Mr. Schwartz said.

The school system signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education after an ESL teacher complained the district didn't do enough to help the students with their English skills.

The Frederick County school system accepts no fault under the agreement but said it would continue to implement changes under way in the ESL program, said Susan Murphy, the county's ESL curriculum specialist.

Frederick, which had five full-time ESL teachers last year, hired four additional teachers for the 2001-2002 school year. It likely will have to hire even more at the end of next year, she said.

"I think we're on the right track," she said.

School systems expect the ESL numbers to keep growing in coming years.

Harford County, which had a 51 percent rise from 135 students in 1997 to 277 students last year, is counting on state SAFE funds to help it keep up in the coming years, said ESL supervisor H.R. Bennett.

"We're going to be seeing more ESL students than we ever have before," he said.

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