By Matt de Simone
The English Learning Department of Botetourt County Public Schools (BCPS) educates approximately 90 students. Out of those students, 13 total languages are spoken as a first language. There are an additional 37 students who have exited the EL program but are still being monitored for their proficiency. It’s up to the department to work with those students every school year to better understand English language as a second language.
Currently, the languages spoken by BCPS EL students include: Spanish, Pashto, Chinese-Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean, Arabic, Farsi, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Filipino, Nepali, Hindi, and Portuguese. A majority of BCPS EL students speak Spanish as their first language. There are 15 BCPS students who are going to school in the United States for the first time who arrived in Botetourt from the countries of Mexico, Honduras, Brazil, and Cuba.
“English language learners play a crucial role in public schools as they bring diversity and unique perspectives to the classroom,” BCPS School Board Chair Anna Weddle said when recently asked about the department’s work. “It is important for Botetourt County Schools to provide support and resources for these students to develop their English language proficiency while ensuring they have access to a quality education. By valuing and investing in English language learners, we can promote inclusivity, enhance cultural awareness, and prepare all students for success in an increasingly globalized world.”
Back in the 2008-09 school year, approximately 15 students were involved in the BCPS EL program, according to BCPS Director of Education Mike Tetreault. Since then, the program has grown in students and instructors.
As a supervisor, Tetreault tracks the students in a database, but also keeps track “personally, by hand” due to the size of the county as compared to other larger localities in Northern Virginia that see a higher influx of EL students in their school divisions.
“We do have an electronic database for all students, including these students,” Tetreault said in an interview. “When I track English Learners, from my standpoint, I do all of those by hand. In a place like Fairfax (County), Arlington, or Harrisonburg—those big divisions—they have (database) programs that track the students for them.”
The department uses LanguageLine as one of the initial communication tools for families and EL students. The program provides professional voice or video interpretation for learning sessions, parent-teacher conferences, and counseling.
“We have ways to communicate with all of our families, no matter what language they speak,” Tetreault added.
The instructional model for any student entering the division is language acquisition. Teachers break down English at the elementary level for better understanding. It doesn’t make a difference what language the students speak when coming in, BCPS instruction starts learning English is the base level.
Students are initially identified through a language proficiency test (WIDA). Those who are brand new to the country work with teachers every day on building language skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Students who are a little higher level are supported by EL instruction as well, but also work with their homeroom teachers and EL instructors to better get the content across.
The current team of EL instructors are spread throughout the county consisting of five full-time and part-time teachers: Susan Bruce, Jamie Duncan, Kathleen Cornelison, Barbara Caballero, and Kay Spangler.
All of the EL teachers work together in a collaborative effort to ensure Botetourt’s EL students get the best instruction available throughout the division. The department also works closely with students’ homeroom teachers to track proficiency levels.
“From the secretaries, to the nurses, to the content teachers—it is all hands on deck,” English Learning teacher Susie Bruce said in a recent interview. “Everybody’s working together… We are in constant communication regarding our students.”
Bruce has taught in BCPS since 2014 after teaching in Roanoke City for a decade. She currently works with approximately 40 students between Read Mountain Middle School (RMMS), Troutville Elementary, and Cloverdale Elementary schools.
“It’s an amazing job,” Bruce said in a recent interview. “A lot of times people misunderstand that my job is just to translate. My job is to teach the students English proficiency and that looks different for every kid.”
Recently, an influx of students in the Cloverdale area arrived from Honduras with limited English skills. Bruce explained her experience working with these students.
“For them, regardless of their grade level, the first thing we have to tackle is letter identification, letter sounds, and teaching them to read,” Bruce said. “It is absolutely amazing how quickly they grasp those concepts. I’ve got some students who moved in knowing no English and, in three years, we have them reading and starting to gain grade-level concepts.”
Teachers make sure the parents get the same information the students receive in their home languages. As far as teaching, BCPS EL instructors focus on building students’ proficiency in the English language. The goal is for the teachers to hold EL students responsible for the English content, but not hold them back for lack of proficiency.
For example, an EL student taking a biology test must know how to break down the parts of a cell. That student isn’t be penalized for not understanding the English involved in the explanation, but they are allowed put together a PowerPoint presentation or a project using the English language to show they understand the parts of a cell.
“Our goal is not to be a translator,” Bruce noted. “We want to teach them to be proficient in English while building their skills in their home language. I stress that importance to my children. They already possess that skill set, let’s not lose that. Let’s build upon that; at the same time, have skills set in both language (for their future employment/educational experiences).”
Jamie Duncan teaches French and Spanish at Read Mountain Middle School and instructs English Learning at Lord Botetourt High School. She previously taught English language in Harrisonburg and Roanoke. Her interest in foreign languages began as a student at LB, before earning a degree at James Madison University.
Duncan sees the connectivity through the teacher, students, and families understanding the importance of communication when learning English.
“Sometimes we’ll come across situations where we’ll reach out to each other to figure out how to better the situation, but I also think it comes down to families. I may only teach the high school students but they have family members that are in the middle and the elementary school as well. If it’s not a brand-new student to the United States, many times, one of the middle or the elementary school EL teachers had that student before. So, we work together because we know the families.”
Kathleen Cornelison is a Spanish/EL teacher at James River High School, Central Academy Middle School (CAMS), and Breckinridge Elementary. She works with students from many different backgrounds and levels of English.
“I have learned so much from them,” Cornelison said. “One of my favorite things is just to treat these students as if they have such an asset that they can speak another language, rather than thinking they have a deficit learning English. They already come in with a diverse culture, background, history, and lots of perspective that they can provide. I get the privilege of teaching them English, which is my favorite part of my job.”