ESOL Activists Asked to Clear Out

On Monday evening dozens of parents, teachers, counselors and advocates for English Language Learners showed up at the Montgomery County (MD) Board of Education meeting to support testimony on the questionable restructuring of the ESOL Department.  We so overwhelmed the board members that they asked us to move into the overflow seating in the auditorium.

My concerns are personal. Yesterday I covered a regular 9th grade classroom while the teacher was on a field trip. I could see a stark contrast between these students and my own. The 9th graders entered the classroom in an orderly manner, got their laptops and began working on their assignments before the bell rang. I had to quiet them down a little to take attendance, but everyone was working or talking quietly for the entire period. Three students asked, one-at-a-time, for passes to the restroom, and one girl braided another girl’s hair. In contrast, students in my class entered the room jostling each other, pushing, mock fighting (one guy grabbing the other around the neck), throwing things, shouting loudly, and sitting down with earbuds at an empty desk — no folder, no book, no notebook, as is (supposed to be) our routine. One student turned the light on and off to get attention, another went directly to the heater by the window and sat on it, checking his phone. They didn’t hear me after the bell rang when I asked them to get their folders and sit down.

Social-emotional learning is one of the most critical areas of need for ESOL students, especially those with interrupted formal education. I teach high schoolers from Central America who have a 5th grade education. They do not know how to be students. In addition, many are dealing with family-reunification issues: They have just arrived in-country to live with mothers or fathers whom they haven’t seen in years. While they are adjusting to a new family, new food, a new house and a new country, it is my job to teach them academic language. But they need so much more. That is why I am worried about the changes in the county ESOL program. Who will guarantee that my students’ needs are being met? We need more bilingual counselors, more Parent Community Coordinators who can visit homes and meet with families. We need a sensible pathway to careers for students who may not make it to college. We need a serious drop-out prevention program, like paid job internships that also give course credit. (I would love to coordinate such a program!) We need less emphasis on graduation in four years. Many ESOL students require more time and direct instruction to become proficient in English. We need fewer standardized tests and less disruption to our weekly schedules. (Thank you state legislators — it looks like we won the Less Testing battle!) We need cultural competence training  like this program for regular classroom teachers.

This video shows all the homemade signs we brought to the Board of Education meeting on Monday evening. They say, “I stand for students,” in the different languages – Spanish, French, Amharic, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, etc. that our students speak. We are worried that the changes in the countywide ESOL program may mean that critical services will be cut.  I had no idea what to expect when Kristen and Margarita asked us to support them and their testimony. Our strong concerns were voiced. “I stand for students” was more than a slogan. We spoke up for the most vulnerable and at-risk students in Montgomery County Public Schools. Now it is up to our elected officials to take action.

I am proud to live in a state that takes care of its students and invests in their future. I am optimistic that our voices have been heard.


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Eva K. Sullivan teaches English Language Learners in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during the 2017-2018 school year, working with the Ministry of Education in Laos, Southeast Asia. She writes short stories, personal essays, and has completed a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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