(Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons


November 3, 2022

       “They retaught me a lot of stuff that I didn’t even know I knew… I feel like because of that, I now have a stronger understanding of those things,” admitted Leo Rojas, 11

        Like Rojas, this is the case for many of the The English to Speakers of Other Languages Program (ESOL), students who experienced the transition into a brand new country’s school system. Despite the countless obstacles ESOL students as well as teachers must overcome, the program has proved to be a valuable experience for all participants, and the hard work put into the program must be acknowledged and appreciated.

       ESOL, is a program meant to meet the needs for students for whom English is not their native language (English Learners). Through the development of proficiency in English and social skills, ESOL’s goal is to equip students with the skills necessary to succeed in not only school, but in society. Students can apply for eligibility through a screening test provided by WIDA– based on their results, the eligible test-takers will be put into one of six levels ranging from “entering” to “reaching.” Over 20% of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) are English Learners.

         With the constantly increasing number of immigrant students entering American school systems as well as disadvantaged kids who do not have the opportunities to become formally literate, ESOL must be accommodating and flexible. Of course for the teachers of the program, this can be a serious challenge. 

        “Sometimes over 40 newcomers can enter the program in a single month which, I think, is one of the biggest struggles of being an ESOL teacher. It’s very, um, difficult to help them reach a certain linguistic standard in such an inconsistent period of time.” Elvira Tifft, the head of the Westfield ESOL Department noted. Tifft teaches all six ESOL levels. Students can enter ESOL all throughout the year. Tifft mentions that she received several new students as late as in the last two weeks of the 2021 school year. Teachers of regular classes experience a similar scenario with students transitioning from ESOL into the standard highschool classes. 

        “Some students were able to seamlessly come right into a regular class, or even in an honor class… And then I’ve had some students who are still acquiring language skills. So there’s a wide spectrum of that” Brigid Duffy, a Westfield English teacher comments. In order to assist these students with transitioning, Duffy adds that she “broke things into more manageable chunks.”

         Other than teaching, Tifft has also supported students in a variety of scenarios. “Just a few months ago, I think in March, a former– graduated student of mine reached out to me.” With a smile on her face, Tifft exclaimed, “I ended up getting her an internship for dentistry!” In the ESOL program, a connection is forged between not just a teacher and a student, but a guide to help through unfamiliar waters and someone learning to swim.

        ESOL’s intent to properly prepare students with English skills can of course be lost among some students. 

        “They made us read books, they made us speak English, um, and they basically just reinstated some skills in us. And this was when I was really young, I think in second grade, and it just felt like a waste of time because I already knew how to do everything they ‘taught’ me” Mashal Karimi, 11th grade reflects. “I was so young and in ESOL for such a small amount of time, so it felt like useless extra help.” 

        Karimi did not go through a screening test, and instead was entered in the program because teachers were notified that she spoke a second language within her household. Karimi immigrated at two years old, and grew up in the US learning English primarily from her parents. On the other hand, Leo Rojas, 11th grade, was an immigrant at eight years old, and was in the ESOL program for three years(third grade to sixth). 

       “Everyone felt just way more respectful, which I think made an environment that was easy to learn in,” Rojas asserted, comparing the schooling of FCPS to what he had previously received. “Looking back on it, I think that I feel pretty satisfied with how my experience in ESOL went. The only thing that I would ‘criticize’ is how they retaught me things I already knew. It felt like they wanted to dumb it down for me.”

       The ESOL program is an extremely difficult department of FCPS to manage. With all the different individuals that must be accommodated in a variety of ways, error and the feeling of dissatisfaction in some students is unavoidable. However, the effect it has had on students, whether insignificant or not, is undeniable. ESOL has helped thousands of students integrate into society as high-functioning adults with advanced linguistic skills to help them throughout their lives. It has also created priceless connections between teachers and English Learners, and the impact that ESOL teachers make on their students is lifelong. The ridiculously overlooked hardships and efforts of all the participants of the ESOL Program should be thoughtfully appreciated, acknowledged, and admired.

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