COLUMBIA, S.C. — School districts in South Carolina are scrambling to hire teachers for the rapidly growing population of students who don’t speak English. Students in the state speak at least 55 different tongues, from Spanish to Tagalog.
In five years, the number of students who don’t speak English has more than doubled in South Carolina schools as workers from Latin America, Asia and elsewhere, flock to the state for jobs.
Many of those workers are bringing their families with them. As a result, schools whose only previous exposure to foreign cultures was Mexican Day in the cafeteria now are searching for people trained to teach English as a second language (ESL).
The sometimes frantic tone of those schools is echoed in the title of an ESL publication given to schools by the state Department of Education: “Help! They Don’t Speak English.”
“Some of those districts have gone from a very few kids five or six to hundreds, in a very short time,” said Jacqui Asbury, who coordinates ESL programs at the state Department of Education. “They don’t really get much notice. They are panicked.”
In the seven years Asbury has been in her job, South Carolina has gone from about 20 full-time ESL teachers to more than 100.
Some districts have had trouble finding qualified teachers and paying for expensive programs. Unlike other children with special needs, such as those with speech problems, students with limited English proficiency bring no extra state or federal money to school districts.
“We have to come up with the money locally, and it’s definitely a problem,” said Mary McGuire, who coordinates ESL and literacy programs for the Aiken County School District. “It’s very expensive.”
Many districts are doing everything they can for students who need special help learning English. But, Asbury said, other districts offer students little or nothing, even going so far as to tell them they should go elsewhere if they need special help.
Kay Ayers, a “master” ESL teacher who works with districts in half the state, has seen schools where students who don’t understand English “are sitting in classrooms staring at the walls.” Some schools have asked incoming Hispanic students to prove they are in the United States legally, although schools are required by federal law to educate children whether they’re legal immigrants or not.
In other schools, the most desperate students get help. However, those students who seem to understand and speak English are shunted into regular classrooms even though they still need special help in reading and writing.
“You can’t ignore a student who doesn’t speak any English,” said Renee Quick, ESL teacher at A.C. Flora High School in Richland District 1. “But, in some districts, as soon as they can walk up and down the hallway on their own, the assistance gets yanked away.”
The federal Office of Civil Rights is monitoring five South Carolina districts to make sure they’re providing enough services for students with limited English. The districts are Richland 1, Aiken, Greenville, Beaufort and Pickens.
“They’ve targeted our state,” Asbury said.
Instead of trained ESL teachers, Aiken County serves its growing Hispanic and Asian populations with tutors who travel from school to school. McGuire, who started her job after the district came under Civil Rights review, plans to bring several ESL teachers to the district’s high schools next year if her budget request is approved.
South Carolina is one of only six states that don’t require ESL teachers to have any special training. But that will change in 1999, when a new law takes effect requiring ESL teachers to be certified for that specialty. That will mean more qualified teachers in the classroom.
“Up until now, we haven’t had certification, so South Carolina isn’t producing enough qualified, certified teachers,” Ayers said. “With the increase in students, the state is realizing the need is there.”
Despite the growing numbers of students who don’t speak English in South Carolina, the national debate over bilingual education isn’t likely to spread here.
California voters recently approved a measure to ban the state’s 30-year bilingual education program by requiring that all students be taught in English. Opponents have appealed.
In South Carolina schools, everyone is taught in English. That surprises some people.
“As soon as I say I teach English as a second language and that we have 18 to 20 languages in the district, people ask, ‘Do you speak them all?”‘ said Becky Krantz, the traveling ESL teacher for District 5 of Lexington and Richland Counties. “They think that the only way to communicate with a child is in the native language.”
Like many ESL teachers, Anne Adams of East End Elementary School in Greenwood speaks only English, although she’s picked up some Spanish from the school’s 60 or so Hispanic children. Windows, desks, chairs and other items in Adams’ classroom are labeled in both languages, but the instruction even for children who speak only Spanish is almost entirely in English.
One afternoon, Adams sat at a table with seven children playing a game similar to the classic concentration card game. Students picked up cards with the names of various occupations written on them, then tried to find the matching picture on a table full of face-down cards.
“Very good,” Adams said to one little girl after she matched the carpenter cards. “And what is the carpenter building?”
The girl fidgeted as other children raised their hands.
“What’s the word for ‘casa?’ ” Adams hinted.
When the cards were all matched up, Adams asked the children questions like, “Israel, put your cards OVER Veronica’s” or “Gerardo, who has MORE cards than you?”
The goal is to gradually increase the amount of time the Spanish-speaking students spend in regular classrooms, Adams said. She and other teachers continue to monitor their progress once they’re there.
“They need to be in there with the English-speaking students so they can practice,” she said. “That’s a big incentive for them. They want to be able to interact with their peers.”
East End’s ESL population is entirely Hispanic. However, at Richland District 2’s Conder Elementary, students speak at least seven languages, including Vietnamese and Portuguese.
Conder is a magnet school for students throughout the district who need ESL classes.
June McKinnon, a first-year ESL teacher at Conder, is amazed at how quickly students move from knowing no English to being fairly proficient. Nydmarie Rosario, 7, born in Puerto Rico, knew almost no English when she started school. But, by the first grade, she was in a regular classroom.
“My brother, when he started school, he learned, and then he taught me,” she said recently, while collecting a year’s worth of art projects. “I sorta don’t like talking Spanish. It’s boring. I like talking English now.”
Although there are fewer ESL students at the high school level, they take much longer to learn English. A first- or second-grader might become proficient in just a few months. An older child starting at the same point might take seven or eight years, Quick said.
ESL experts said there also can be a danger in “mainstreaming” a child before he or she is ready. Often a child who goes into the regular classroom in elementary school returns to an ESL classroom in middle school, where concepts get more difficult.
“You have to train your faculty and staff to be aware and to do constant monitoring,” said Krantz, who continues watching her former students’ progress all the way to graduation.
To get to that milestone, the ESL students have to face the same battery of standardized tests as any other student. ESL teachers say even those who have mastered English and get outstanding grades can fail tests that are geared toward native speakers. South Carolina now has an alternative scoring method for the English portion of ESL students’ exit tests, but Asbury wants more accommodations.
“The only way we got that was when someone realized a girl who can get a scholarship to Harvard can’t get past the exit exam,” she said.
Diversity of backgrounds. Students sitting next to each other in an ESL classroom not only speak a variety of languages, but they also come from a wide range of backgrounds.
Some are the children of college professors or business executives who demand academic excellence and monitor their children’s grades carefully; others are the children of migrant workers who have very little education and might want their children out of school and working by the time they get to high school.
The latter group is the one that’s growing fastest, ESL experts say. At the lower grade levels, more students are coming in without literacy in any language, Ayers said. And Krantz and Quick say they now are starting to see their first problems with ESL students dropping out to work or get married. Sometimes, a family “sacrifices” older children so the younger ones can get a better education.
Quick said she tries to challenge those students to strive for a better life than their parents have while still respecting their goals and their cultures. But many who work with ESL students say it can be frustrating to think about the life in store for many of them.
Carla Doolittle is a counselor at East End Elementary in Greenwood, S.C., where many of the Hispanic families work in a pig-processing plant. She worries in particular about one little girl who is extremely bright.
“She could probably go anywhere,” Doolittle said. “But I don’t know if she’s going from pillar to post, from blueberries to apples, from one meat-processing plant to another. I don’t see much hope.”
But many immigrant parents working menial jobs in South Carolina say one of the reasons they came to this country is to give their children a better education.
Maribel Espinosa, a custodial worker at Columbia College, believes her children would be doomed to a life of labor in their native Mexico. Here, she believes the possibilities are endless.
“Here, the one that doesn’t advance is the one who doesn’t want to,” she said. “This is the land of opportunity.”