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Montgomery County Public Schools. (Courtesy Photo)

ROCKVILLE – Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) central office staff said they want to revise their approach to secondary education for middle and high school students who have limited English proficiency (LEP).

Staff presented its findings on MCPS data about LEP secondary students during a Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education meeting Nov. 12.

Niki Hazel, associate superintendent of the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Programs (OCIP) at MCPS, reported to the board details about the difference in academic achievement between high-performing and low-performing students in terms of college and career readiness, as measured by Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program (MCAP) test scores.

Staff found in its research that many secondary students in the English Speakers of Other Languages program (ESOL) are less likely to earn high scores on two-state tests required for graduation: the Maryland MCAP for Algebra 1 and the English 10 MCAP.

Hazel also told the board that central office staff has started working on a plan to improve the academic performance of secondary school – middle school and high school students who are in the ESOL program and that the plan spans three school years.

Central office’s “strategic goals” for the plan are to increase high school graduation rates of ESOL students, to improve teacher quality through training, and to increase the number of secondary ESOL students enrolled in at least one on-grade-level class while continuing their ESOL courses. The plan would involve providing supports to ESOL students enrolled in the on-level English classes.

Staff research found that many secondary students with limited English proficiency who take the state tests in math and English have never taken an on-grade-level class in either math or English.

Hazel said that staff is considering an approach that is different from the norm.

MCPS wants to put ESOL students in an on-grade-level course but with added supports. The plan would also involve making sure teachers who are teaching ESOL are certified to teach ESOL as well as certified in the subject matter they teach. This will require giving teachers training at some point during the next three years.

She did not say whether that idea has been set in stone or which teachers would require training. Hazel said viewing ESOL students based on their level of English proficiency is not helpful.

“We want to be careful not to label our students,” Hazel said. “We have level two (ESOL) students who are earning fours and fives (on tests), but we also know we have a lot of work to do. Now, we’re in a place where Algebra I is a high school (graduation) requirement.” She added that Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) will expect that students earn top scores on the two tests required for graduation, which would be a four or a five.

Michelle Hunsberger, an ESOL teacher at Gaithersburg Middle School, accompanied Hazel at the board table. She said she has observed that labels for being in ESOL negatively impact students who are in the ESOL program at her school.

Hunsberger said she believes that one could argue that placing ESOL students only in ESOL courses sends a message to the students that the school system has low expectations for them. On the other hand, if MCPS staff gives ESOL students the needed supports, placing secondary students in an on-level English course could prove beneficial for them; it also may change the way teachers see their students.

“If we are asked to teach the same standards (to ESOL students as we teach to non-ESOL students) … it takes away a lot of our implicit biases,” Hunsberger said.

Sonja Bloetner, supervisor of ESOL Pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade, who was also at the board table, said the plan would take a lot of work and requires support from many departments and from everyone involved to be a success. The plan is ongoing and will last through the end of the 2021-2022 school year.

The OCIP three-year plan to improve ESOL academic performance was not solely a central office decision. Between June and October, OCIP met with a “multi-stakeholder workgroup” to receive input on student needs, such as which type of English development courses would be most suitable for students with lower-level English proficiency level 1 or level 2.

OCIP also sought their advice, worked to help members of the workgroup understand its goals and asked them to communicate those goals to people in their jurisdictions. The teachers union, Montgomery County Education Association’s ESOL Advisory Committee, helped recommend some of the members of the workgroup.

Superintendent Jack Smith wrote in a memorandum to the board for the Nov. 12 meeting that OCIP staff and the Secondary Schools ESOL Multistakeholder Work Group will work together to organize the steps in the three-year plan.

An outline of the plan is available in the memo, which can be viewed through the MCPS School Board portion of the web service BoardDocs, accessible through the Board page of the MCPS website.

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