Major Increase in ESL Students in Charlottesville Schools

December 12, 2013

Charlottesville City Schools are adapting to a changing student population. The number of students whose first language is something other than English has increased by 88.3 percent since 2003.

A decade ago, there were 170 English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Today, 433 of them walk the halls of Charlottesville schools.

This dramatic increase has created some unique challenges for the school system.

"I've seen Charlottesville change drastically. I've seen the language change, I've seen the colors change, and I think it makes our community a lot richer, and what happens is that spills over into our classroom," said school board chair Juandiego Wade. "It's been a big expense to the school system."

Wade says the biggest impact has been making sure hiring appropriate staff is a budget priority. In 2003, the school division had about five ESL teachers. There are now 12.5 positions.

Cherry Stewart's position is a direct result of the growth.

"I'm sort of a liaison between the schools and the families to help them help their children do well in school," said Stewart, Charlottesville City Schools' ESL counselor for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

It's a task that's not always easy, given the circumstances.

Many of the students who sit in Stewart's classroom are refugees. Charlottesville is one of just 22 cities across the United States where the International Rescue Commission helps refugees resettle.

"Some of our students come here from countries or refugee camps where they've never had access to education, or sometimes they've had access to education in a camp setting where there may be 35 to 60 children in a classroom," said Stewart. "Here in the city schools, we teach critical thinking skills, creativity, and they're not really used to that kind of learning."

The ESL teachers work with the students to get them up to speed. Even if they lacked schooling in their native country, the students are still required to perform and meet high standards.

"They're expected to take the SOLs, even if they haven't been in the country very long, so it's just a lot more challenging for those kids," said Stewart.

Wade says that can have a negative impact on overall graduation rates, but says the extra efforts being made to give these kids a proper education are worth it.

"We're going to have to step up to the plate and meet those challenges. It's not something that we're being pushed to do. It's something we want to do. People want to come live in our community. We think it's a good thing. Part of the reason they want to come here is because of the educational system," said Wade.

The most common languages the ESL students speak are Spanish, Nepali and Arabic. Charlottesville High School, Greenbrier Elementary and Jackson-Via Elementary have the highest number of ESL students.


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