PGCPS strives to serve English Language Learners
By Michelle Levine
At its June 10 meeting, the county board of education voted to approve the final recommendations of its English Language Learners Focus Workgroup. The recommendations aim to increase, over the next nine years, the academic achievement of students who come from non-English speaking homes.
Hyattsville schools have high percentages of students learning English, ranging from 20% at Hyattsville Middle School to over 53% at Edward M. Felegy Elementary School, as shown in data published by the Maryland Department of Education.
Pamela Boozer-Strother, school board representative for District 3, which includes Hyattsville, says her district has been educating English language learners (ELLs) for a long time compared to other districts in the county.
“We’ve had innovative programming and services and the best ESOL teaching staff for years,” Boozer-Strother asserted. “Some of these recommendations are certainly going to help schools throughout the county where the population is shifting.”
The percentage of students learning the English language in Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) has been increasing over the last few years, according to state data. In 2020, more than 21% of students in the county were learning English — a 33% increase from 2016.
Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the Latino population in Hyattsville has been growing over the last two decades. According to the 2019 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates Data Profiles, Latino residents account for almost 37% of Hyattsville’s population, making it the largest ethnic group in the city, compared to about 18% recorded in the 2000 census.
ESOL instructor and Hyattsville resident Kate Kowalski said that as more families who don’t speak English enter the county school system, increasing efforts to effectively communicate with parents should be the system’s number one priority. Kowalski, who has taught for six years at Templeton Elementary in Riverdale, said that classroom struggles often result from language barriers.
Kowalski compared conversations between families of ELLs and English-speaking teachers to the muffled phone calls that are portrayed in Charlie Brown TV specials.
“You just have to assume that anytime you talk, that’s what you sound like. So you can’t assume that the words you’re saying are getting any information across,” she explained.
The new recommendations include plans to help mitigate language barriers, including creating a family literacy program and satisfying 100% of the requests made to the Office of Interpreting and Translation (OIT). The workgroup reported that of the 17,728 requests made to the OIT in fiscal year 2020, over 97% of them were fulfilled.
Board member Raaheela Ahmed (District 5) and student member Ninah Jackson co-chair the workgroup. Ahmed said that she and Jackson had been discussing the issues for months before the workgroup was officially created in 2020.
As the daughter of immigrants, Ahmed said she is motivated to use her position on the board to advocate for English language learners.
One of the workgroup’s goals is for all instructional and support staff to be trained to teach students learning the English language.
The workgroup also recommended collecting and analyzing data on exit rates, advance coursework enrollment and post-secondary outcomes, among other measures of success.
“Data is, I think, the number one thing,” Ahmed said.
Other workgroup recommendations include requiring an Ethnic and Cultural Studies graduation requirement for all students, hiring more immigrant teachers and staff, and developing virtual options for core classes in native languages — all with the goal of increasing academic success for those students learning English.
“I always wanted it to happen but never imagined it could,” Ahmed said of getting the recommendations approved.
Ahmed said that seeing the board take action gives her hope for the success of other workgroups, such as the Climate Change Action Focus Workgroup and the School to Prison Pipeline Workgroup, which are both in the early stages of creating recommendations.
Michelle Levine is an intern with the Hyattsville Life & Times.