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Speaking Terms

Educators are bridging the gap between the classroom – and home.

Speaking terms
Education Specialist Val Gooss at Henrico’s ESL Welcome Center, located at Tucker High School.
By Joan Hughes

While at home they might speak Somali, Tagalog, Romanian or one of the other 70-plus languages represented in their local school system, once they get to school, students are encouraged to speak, listen, read and write in English.

It’s a challenge, educators say, that’s growing by leaps and bounds. In Chesterfield, there are 4,370 students whose native language is something other than English, according to the Virginia Department of Education. In Henrico, there are 3,810 students whose primary language isn’t English.

In Chesterfield, the number of students who come from non-English speaking homes is actually much higher (about 7,700 students), but many aren’t counted in the state figures because they have reached some English proficiency during their schooling.

As the region grows more diverse, so do the schools. And bridging the language barrier, says Louise Sutton, Chesterfield County Public Schools ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) specialist, starts at home.
“If you think about it, schools or businesses send home letters to read, make calls to listen to, ask for written consent and hold conferences,” Sutton says via email.

“Building a confidence in the language vocabulary and all methods of communication will encourage parents to actively participate in their child’s school” or their own work, Sutton notes.

In Henrico, families are first encouraged to help their children build literacy in their native languages, says Val Gooss, education specialist for ESL (English as a Second Language) and World Languages with Henrico County Public Schools, via email. “Research shows that those who have a strong literacy in their first language learn an additional language more easily.

“We encourage parents to read to their children in their native language if they are not proficient in English,” Gooss says. But, she adds, “We strongly encourage parents to look for opportunities to practice English with their children and expose them to English using resources such as the public library.”

According to the Chesterfield County Demographic Report from July 2015, the county is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, with the Hispanic or Latino population alone increasing 200 percent between 2000 and 2010. Hence a growing language barrier: 11 percent of the population older than 5 speaks a language other than English. In Henrico, 14.2 percent of the population older than 5 speaks a language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

The Chesterfield and Henrico school systems have initiatives, such as classes and welcome centers, in place to build parent engagement.

Sutton, who came to the United States from England after completing her education, says she understands how the school system – including its buses, the way the schools are set up, the grades and homework expectations – can be confusing to parents from another country.

She says classes for those parents have been offered for about the last five years. “We engage the parents in a safe and supported environment to take chances using English in all four areas [speaking, listening, reading and writing],” Sutton says.

The free two-hour classes run for eight to 10 weeks in the fall and spring and, for the first time, were offered this past summer. To further support the parents, while they are taking classes, their children can learn basic English via interactive activities, Sutton says.

There are also programs, and evening sessions, to help parents connect with the school system more effectively. For example, she adds, “We need parents to know how to get onto StudentVUE [an app used in middle and high schools] to look at their children’s grades.”

In Chesterfield’s public schools, of the 7,700 students who have a home language other than English, 5,785 students, or 75 percent, speak Spanish. Arabic, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean make up the other top five minority languages in the school system.

Virginia Department of Education statistics show Chesterfield’s top three languages (Spanish, Arabic and Vietnamese) mirror the top three statewide, with Urdu and Korean as the next most common minority languages statewide, according to Sutton.

In Henrico schools, Spanish is also the No. 1 minority language, according to Gooss, followed by Arabic, a language from India (Hindi or Telugu), Nepali (representative of the large number of refugees who have resettled in Henrico, Gooss says) and Vietnamese.

Virginia refugee resettlement service providers in the Richmond area tend to drive the language population in Henrico, Gooss says. “That influences the diversity in our language population, and it [the diversity of languages] changes with the international political climate.”

Henrico’s classes for parents are offered in the fall and help them “learn English as they learn more about the American school system,” Gooss says, noting that class topics include parent-teacher conferences, field trips and homework.

In October, Gooss says, the school system celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its ESL Welcome Center, located on the campus of J.R. Tucker High School.

“The Welcome Center is their entree into the American public school system for our non-English speaking parents and their children, so once they’ve met the staff there, it tends to be their go-to place for all sorts of information,” Gooss says.

Chesterfield also has a Welcome Center – at Perrymont (a former school on Perrymont Road that now houses parent support services) – where language screening tests are administered and Spanish- or French-speaking staff members can provide assistance, Sutton says, along with other services for non-English speakers.

For students, the good part of speaking a native language at home and English at school is that they keep two languages, Sutton says.

“The hard part is that sometimes they don’t have the homework support they need,” Sutton says. “That’s why we need to help the parents in their English language development and help them understand the school process.”