HARRISONBURG, Va.—Over the past decade, immigrants seeking jobs at local poultry plants have settled in the rural Shenandoah Valley, causing steady growth in the number of people who do not speak English as their native language.
About 35 percent of the 4,000 students in Harrisonburg’s public schools are not primary English speakers—up from 4 percent in 1993-94—and 65 percent of those students are Hispanic, according to school figures. Officials expect the schools’ Hispanic population to increase by 2 percent a year for the next decade as Latino families continue to move to the area. Now, officials are turning to school districts in the Washington area, including Northern Virginia, for help recruiting teachers of English as a second language.
When Terri Gehman started teaching first grade at Stone Spring Elementary School 10 years ago, the school had one part-time ESL specialist.
“Now there are five of us full-time teachers and one assistant that just works with kindergarten,” said Gehman, who now teaches kindergarten and first-grade ESL.
School administrators are struggling to meet students’ needs by trying to fill teaching jobs with candidates who speak Spanish or have experience teaching English as a second language. The district currently has 24 ESL teachers and 27 aides instructing 1,468 English learners, Superintendent Donald Ford said.
“Teacher recruitment is huge right now,” as is the general shortage of bilingual teachers, said Wanda Hamilton, who coordinates Harrisonburg’s English, foreign language and limited-English-proficiency programs. “We don’t have any good answers for it.”
Adding to the difficulties of teaching English learners, schools are seeing a rise in the number of immigrant students who are “under-schooled,” or have educational deficits because they come from rural or war-torn regions where children attend school intermittently or not at all.
“They can’t read in any language, let alone English,” Short said.