Chesterfield County’s top political leader questioned approaches toward the county’s most vulnerable communities this week, remarks that drew criticism from scholars, advocates and other officials.

Dorothy Jaeckle, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, represents the county’s Bermuda District, where some of the county’s most impoverished and diverse residents live.

“I understand the impacts of (English-language learners) because my district of course has a lot. And I think that’s another thing that needs to be raised to a state level,” Jaeckle said.

“This is where we are. This is what is creating the division. It’s not that people don’t like immigrants. But it’s when people send their children to school, and they find themselves in a classroom where nobody speaks English, they say, ‘Well, I’m not going.’ You talk about what attracts people to Chesterfield schools. It’s not that they’re prejudiced against them, but they want their child to be in a classroom that’s more English-speaking.”

The comment came during a daylong budget work session Wednesday, when Jaeckle urged school leaders not to direct funding for class-size reduction toward growing classes of English-language learners. She said she wanted the money to go toward regular classroom sizes and that additional teachers in English-language learner classes was “outside of that.”

“That day when the immigrants held their children home, teachers said it was so nice to have a whole class that understood English,” Jaeckle added, referencing the recent nationwide “A Day Without Immigrants” where immigrant families stayed home to highlight contributions of immigrants to U.S. business and culture.

“It is impacting our schools. I understand the increased ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), but I also think we were looking just to reduce the regular class. So I don’t know, it’s a challenge.”

School Board Chairman Javaid Siddiqi, whose father immigrated from Pakistan, then responded. 

“The number of ESOL students has grown dramatically,” Siddiqi said, adding that there are some schools with ratios of 2½ ESOL teaching positions to more than 200 students. “The reality is that we are going to have to put additional funding in ESOL.”

“There are a lot of families who are struggling about whether we are doing our part. And these are not just ESOL families that have come to us,” Siddiqi said. “A lot of folks see the need for us to provide additional services.”

Besides Siddiqi, no one else directly responded to those comments from Jaeckle on Wednesday.

“We truly appropriated that money to reduce PTR (pupil-teacher ratios). If you go spending it in other areas, I think that’s a bad road to go down,” Supervisor Steve Elswick told school leaders Wednesday. He didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday specifically regarding Jaeckle’s comments.

In a Friday phone interview on the comments, Supervisor Chris Winslow said, “We have a duty to educate all of the children in Chesterfield. That includes our immigrant populations, as well as our non-immigrant populations.”

He said he didn’t have a problem with the school system directing funds to reduce class sizes for ESOL classes. But he said he thought the school system should specifically say that’s where the funds are going for transparency.

New Virginia Majority on Friday rebuked Jaeckle’s remarks. The advocacy group is geared toward organizing communities of color, women, working people, the LGBT community, youth and progressives.

“These comments rationalize an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality that discriminates against families and children who are immigrants or English-language learners,” Gustavo Angeles, an organizer with New Virginia Majority, wrote in an email. “Rather than scapegoating some, our public schools and elected officials must invest resources in — and do whatever is necessary for — all students to be prepared to succeed.”

Tom Shields, a University of Richmond associate professor who studies equity within the region’s schools, said Chesterfield’s ESOL population has different needs and praised Chesterfield’s school staff for recognizing that.

“You have to approach it in a very different way and not just say, ‘one size fits all.’ (The ESOL population is) struggling with language barriers and now with the threat of deportation. … Letting that population know that we are here to support them is what should be happening, and not just saying, ‘Well, they need to conform with what everyone else is doing.’ That’s the wrong answer,” Shields said.

After hearing that a reporter was asking for other officials’ reactions to her Wednesday comments, Jaeckle sent an email Friday:

“I mentioned the Immigration Day because we are always looking for ways to reduce the burdens on teachers. I don’t know if you have ever been to a budget hearing to hear many of the teachers describing how overwhelmed they are in the classroom. I had several teachers mention that evening that they were shocked at what a difference it made in their classroom having students fully understand the language. My point in this is we have worked on reducing class size but maybe the size is not the issue,” she wrote.

School Board member John Erbach, who represents the Dale district which also has higher numbers of English-language learners, responded to Jaeckle's comments Friday:

"All of our students benefit from a culture of inclusion that respects and supports students of all nationalities and backgrounds. Chesterfield County Public Schools celebrate the diversity of our community and will continue to do so."

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On Wednesday, Jaeckle also offered comments on the county’s homeless student population and growing social services caseload.

“It’s just one of my pet peeves,” she said during a discussion of the small increases in the homeless student population. “If a child is homeless, if you can’t provide a home, then maybe you need to think about your children needing to be in temporary foster care while you try to find a home.”

After Chesterfield Department of Social Services Director Kiva Rogers described to supervisors the county’s growing caseload, Jaeckle criticized the Richmond-Times Dispatch for a recent article detailing how suburban poverty growth is outpacing that of the city.

“The projected caseload, when you see that’s increasing, similar to you know, you always see in the newspaper, poverty increasing and they throw out all these colored maps, this and that. But nobody actually tries to drill down on the ‘why,’ which always drives me crazy,” Jaeckle said.

“We just have to take more of a proactive role. And just assuming that (the caseload is) going to increase, and just keep trying to spend more money and subsidizing people, we really need to work on setting them on a path to freedom.”

The Times-Dispatch’s article was based on fresh Census Bureau data culled together by John Moeser, a University of Richmond senior fellow who has studied the region’s poverty trends for years, as well as Taylor Holden with the Spatial Analysis Lab and University of Richmond students Evelyn Jung and Jacob Salamy.

Jaeckle initially responded to the figures last week by calling them “not useful enough.” Henrico County has been using Moeser’s data.

“I think that the valuable work that John has been doing is trying to bring light to what has been going on in the county for some years,” said Shields, the UR professor. “It’s amazing to me that some people don’t want to realize that.”

He added that a more interesting response from Jaeckle on Wednesday would have been how she plans to use the data from the article.

Supervisor Leslie Haley said Wednesday that some of the social services caseload is evidence of society in general, citing the opioid epidemic that put families in the system who “might not necessarily be in the system.”

Supervisor Winslow said he is excited for an upcoming county report that will offer recommendations to tackle poverty, one he worked on while serving on a committee for more than a year.

Carrie Coyner, Jaeckle’s counterpart on the School Board who is typically vocal about such issues, declined to comment Friday and said she wanted to listen to the work session’s audio.

Supervisor James Holland said he wasn’t able to comment Friday since he was out of town on family business. Haley also didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.

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