MCPS delaying ESOL focus until kindergarten

MCPS delaying ESOL screening until kindergarten

Some educators worried change is 'setting kids up’ to fail

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Pre-kindergarten students play with building blocks during the grand opening ceremony of the MacDonald Knolls Early Childcare Center in 2018.

File photo

The headline on this story was updated at 2:15 p.m. June 18, 2020, to be more specific about what MCPS is changing.

When classes resume in the fall, MCPS pre-kindergarteners who are not native English speakers will no longer be screened to determine how much help they need to learn the language.

In an email to staff members on Tuesday night, MCPS Director of Elementary Curriculum Brenda Lewis wrote that “although we will no longer officially identify students for ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] services in the early childhood programs, we know that there are multilingual learners in these classrooms.”

In an interview Thursday morning, MCPS Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instructional Programs Niki Hazel said the school district was one of the few that screens pre-K students for ESOL services because the state requires the screening to begin in kindergarten.

Instead, MCPS will use children’s registration forms, which ask parents to identify other languages spoken in the home, and monitoring by teachers to determine who might require additional language services.

Additionally, formulas that determine how many ESOL staff members a school employs were changed. Previously, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade enrollment was used; now, pre-K enrollment will not be included in the formula. Schools will have the autonomy to decide if the ESOL teachers they employ will work exclusively with pre-K students, Hazel said.

For MCPS, the goal is to reduce the amount of time its youngest students are pulled from the classroom to receive targeted support. Instead, general education teachers will receive additional training and ESOL teachers will work collaboratively to provide support, Hazel said. The transition will happen gradually over several years as MCPS assesses its effectiveness, Hazel said.

“Research says students from birth to 5 are like sponges when it comes to language and can learn multiple languages in that period if immersed in an environment with that language,” Hazel said. “… Pre-K is a language-rich environment. There’s repetition. There’s play. Teachers are singing and having students sing back. There are images on the walls.”

Many teachers are concerned that students who are non-native English speakers need more targeted support — not less — in early childhood programs, so they don’t fall behind and lack the tools they need to learn at the same level as their peers when they start kindergarten.

Chris Lloyd, president of Montgomery County’s teachers union, said on Wednesday he had heard from many educators who were upset or concerned about MCPS’ change to early childhood programs.

Several ESOL teachers contacted by Bethesda Beat declined to comment on the record because they feared retribution from the school district.

“Kids who are struggling with the language need those intensive services early on to access the curriculum,” Lloyd said. “Frankly, there’s a lot of concern, I think, that if we don’t do that, teachers have said they believe we’re basically setting kids up to not be successful and setting them up to not have the skillset they need to succeed in elementary school.”


Experts and education leaders across the country are at odds about the best way to teach students whose first language is not English.

Research published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health says: “Among those whose home language is not English, acquiring English proficiency by kindergarten entry was associated with better cognitive and behavioral outcomes through eighth grade compared to taking longer to achieve proficiency.”

The research also says one of the key factors in students achieving English proficiency is involvement in a “well-designed bilingual education program” that includes small group and one-on-one activities and explicit vocabulary instruction.

Other research, published last year in the Public School Review, says integrating English language learners into mainstream classrooms could force teachers to slow down the pace of instruction to ensure all students can keep up. The research highlights arguments from some advocates who say separate setting methods are a violation of civil rights laws by increasing cultural bias and creating “separate and unequal” learning environments.

California in 1998 passed a law that requires all classes be taught in English, even if the students in them have never been exposed to the language before.

In 2017, Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring implemented a whole school program that eliminated ESOL-specific classes.

The school, which serves students in pre-K through fifth grade, cut its ESOL staff from 6.5 teachers to 1.5 and added five general education teachers. All teachers received training on “how to develop academic language for their students.”

The remaining three part-time ESOL teachers worked with general education instructors to monitor students’ language proficiency progress, according to a presentation to the school board by Principal Scott Steffan in May 2018.

He said the move drastically reduced the school’s average class size and nearly eliminated student behavior problems.

“Imagine that if you were running a school where the vast majority of your population have special needs,” he said during the 2018 board meeting. “Would you have only six or seven people working with those special needs students that had the skills and strategies to help those students be successful? Or would you train the entire staff on how to work with those students?”

But, he added, “By no means do I think that this model could or should be replicated everywhere.”

During that meeting, MCPS Chief Academic Officer Maria Navarro said “there is a lot of interest” in replicating the program, and MCPS is “interested in looking at ways in which schools could make site-based decisions “in how to support ESOL students.”

Reviewing ESOL programs’ effectiveness

In MCPS, English language learners in all grades are more likely to have lower grades and test scores — often because those students have the double-pronged challenge of learning a new language and the standard curriculum.

In 2019, for example, 59% of second-grade English language learners were proficient in literacy at Bethesda Elementary School. That is compared to 84% of all other students who were proficient. The data do not disclose how many students attended early childhood programs.

The disparities are often cited in longstanding discussions about the school district’s achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers.

School board member Jeanette Dixon said in an interview on Wednesday morning that she plans to request a comprehensive review in the coming months of the school district’s ESOL program to see “whether or not it’s doing what we need to help students learn English.”

The intent, Dixon said, is not to disparage language teachers, but to determine what other resources they need to support their work.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do students learn English as quickly and achieve what we want them to achieve if they are not with students who speak English well?’ ” Dixon said. “We are spending millions and millions of dollars, and we’d like a better return on our investment in terms of student achievement.”

‘Now’s not the time’

Many educators and some school board members thought the changes to the early childhood ESOL program were the result of budget constraints caused by the coronavirus.

But Hazel said MCPS has been discussing the changes for several months and budget considerations were not a driving factor. Rather, she said, “as we look at the overall performance of ESOL, we know we have to make some changes to get better results.”

The school district sent an email to ESOL staff members on February 11 that briefly addressed “changes that are going to be in place for the 2020-21 school year.” In a document linked in that email, MCPS explains it will use a different process to “identify the levels of our multilingual learners.”

Dixon and fellow board members Karla Silvestre and Rebecca Smondrowski each said they were surprised to hear of the changes.

Lloyd said teachers he has spoken with were frustrated they were not more involved in the decision-making process. Many said they did not see or receive the February email and feel that major education changes should not be made until the effect of the coronavirus on students’ learning is measured and classes return to school buildings full-time.

“This is where, in my view, we should be applying as many services as we can now, this summer, this fall. Then, we can ask all the pedagogical questions about ESOL later,” Lloyd said. “Now’s not the time to alter something kids need. Kids can’t afford that now.”

Hazel, however, said the union and principals were involved in discussions this year about the ESOL program, and not all ESOL services are being removed for pre-K students next year.

“We’ll see how it works,” Hazel said. “If it’s not working, we’ll readjust and see if those intensive pull-out ESOL services are needed.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at

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