English Learners

A student took notes during his English as a Second Language class at a community college in Omaha, Neb. More than 12% of residents in Virginia are foreign-born and the English Learner (EL) population in our schools is growing.

By Cecilia E. Barbosa and May Nivar

In 1931, the historian James Truslow Adams first publicly defined the American dream as “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” For more than 1 million Virginians, namely those from immigrant communities, life here represents the pursuit of the American dream.

More than 12% of commonwealth residents are foreign-born. They contribute as students, educators, business owners, laborers, police officers, scientists, servers, advocates, engineers, elected officials and more. Like all Virginians, we aspire to provide for our families and foster an environment where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, including having access to a quality education. Unfortunately, for some of our children, there are significant barriers to reaching their full potential.

The English Learner (EL) population in our Virginia schools continues to grow. In 2005-06, 19 school divisions had more than 5% EL students. By the 2018-19 school year, 30 school divisions had more than 5% ELs. Our education systems have been crippled by underfunding for more than a decade and schools are hard-pressed to meet the needs of EL students.

That is why we are pleased with Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget supporting English Language Learner students. The governor’s budget includes $27.6 million over two years to add more EL staff in Virginia schools and reduce the ratio of students to instructors. The proposal also would allow school divisions to supplement these services using Prevention, Intervention and Remediation funds to employ additional EL or dual language teachers.

This is an important step to improve outcomes for EL students.

Roughly 13% of Virginia’s public-school students — 107,147 children and youth in the 2018-2019 school year — were enrolled in EL education programs in their schools. These students bring a rich diversity in cultures and languages. For example, more than 200 languages are spoken in students’ homes in Fairfax County Public Schools; roughly 100 languages in Henrico County and Chesterfield County Public Schools; and more than 60 languages in Virginia Beach City Public Schools. This cultural diversity enriches the educational experience of all students, their development of multicultural understanding and stresses the importance of multilingualism in our globally oriented society.

Unfortunately, financial support for Virginia’s educators and public schools has not kept pace with what Virginia’s children, including Virginia’s EL students, deserve. The Commonwealth Institute (TCI) reports that our current funding formula investing in EL students falls below the national average. Data from the National Education Association, Economic Policy Institute and Education Law Center at Rutgers University reveal that Virginia ranks significantly lower compared to other states for teacher pay and per-student spending — factors that contribute to educational inequities for EL students and all children in the commonwealth.

Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) data show outcomes with significant, persistent and growing gaps. Per TCI’s analysis of VDOE data, in 2019, EL students’ Standards of Learning (SOL) reading test pass rates were nearly 50 percentage points lower than rates for non-EL students. Tragically, EL students’ four-year graduation rates were more than 30 percentage points lower than those of all students and 1 in 4 EL students drops out prior to completing high school.

We are alarmed and concerned by these significant and growing gaps and trends in our children’s education and believe that improved support for EL students requires systemic change.

We call upon Virginia’s lawmakers to approve the governor’s EL proposal in this legislative session and to delve deeper into how our education system can better help EL and immigrant students succeed by commissioning a study of the systemic barriers that EL students and families face and the support they need to excel in school and beyond.

Increasing resources for EL students and Virginia’s education system is critical. Parents and students will benefit from additional academic, career planning and social and emotional development support; and we can finally work toward closing achievement gaps and preparing all students for success. We need to unleash the potential of all students and enable them to enrich each other’s education about the global landscape. For Virginia to remain competitive, now is the time to show that the commonwealth is a globally oriented, inclusive state that values multilingualism and multiculturalism. A Virginia that is educated to think, interact and connect across cultures widens all paths to the American dream.

Cecilia E. Barbosa is a community advocate and chair of the Virginia Latino Advisory Board. Contact her at: ceykynbarbosa@gmail.com

May Nivar is a community advocate, chair of the Virginia Asian Advisory Board, chair of the Asian & Latino Solidarity Alliance, and a Richmond chapter member of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. Contact her at: may.nivar@gmail.com

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