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In 1998 less than 5 percent of students in the HCPS system were English Language Learners, now about 2,030 students are identified language learners. 

Fifty-three languages and 49 countries are represented by students currently attending Harrisonburg City Public Schools. Approximately 2,030 children are identified language learners in the HCPS system and account for 33 percent of children in grades K-12.

Laura Feichtinger McGrath, an English as a second language coordinator for HCPS, began working for the city in 1998. According to McGrath, less than 5 percent of HCPS students were identified as English Language Learners and 85 percent were Caucasian when she began.

“We’re definitely a lot different now,” McGrath said. “Our ethnic breakdown and race as defined by the federal indicators, right now we’re about 45 percent Hispanic and only about 35 percent white, and within our white population, probably a third of those students are from the Middle East and from Russian-speaking countries.”

McGrath is tasked with overseeing the Title III language instruction program, which is rooted in the 14th Amendment. It’s a federal grant created with the goal of ensuring that identified language learners have equal access to all opportunities that public schools provide. She also supports students and their families in HCPS.

Teachers are expected to participate in a mandatory 20-hour workshop on working with culturally and linguistically diverse students within their first three years of employment. HCPS also offers a free graduate course on integrating language and content instruction in the classroom, taken by 15-20 teachers a year.

“We’re lucky because we have these moral guidelines, but then we also look around, we’re like, these are our kids, they’re all our kids and there is a lot of them, and they’re all very different,’” McGrath said. “You can’t just talk about language learners as if they are a monolithic group, because they are so not homogenous. They are incredibly complex and each student has their own story and their own path, just like every other kid we have in our schools.”

 At Harrisonburg High School, there are 45 students new to the U.S. this year. McGrath ensures there are classes suitable for all of them. She believes JMU has adjusted to meet the needs of a shifting demographic population in Harrisonburg.

“We get JMU folks who can come over and do some work with our teachers and of course the students in the [Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages] program,” McGrath said. “It’s been a pretty symbiotic relationship.”

Katya Koubek, an associate professor of education and TESOL coordinator, provides instruction and assistance to students as they pursue eligibility for a Virginia teaching license in ESL. 

She believes that one of the reasons for the amount of languages in Harrisonburg is because it is a refugee resettlement area. Opportunities for jobs are what bring families to the city according to Koubek.  

“Schools, as I know, have received new students in the middle of the academic year,” Koubek said. “There is constant movement of students from different countries to Harrisonburg and other refugee resettlement areas.”

 Senior French major Emily Hadfield is student teaching for the TESOL licensure program for her minor at Harrisonburg High School. The program’s goal is to “prepare future educators to understand and implement more equitable and effective ways of working with English Language Learners.”

 Hadfield believes that since HCPS is becoming more diverse, there’s a huge need for ESL teachers. She also thinks the “JMU bubble” isn’t representative of how Harrisonburg looks as a whole, especially its students. 

“They come from all over the world and have all sorts of different backgrounds, different languages, different cultures, different educational backgrounds,” Hadfield said. “Some have spent most of their lives in refugee camps. Some have been highly educated in their home countries and are just coming here to finish. They have such diverse needs and it’s really critical that we do everything we can to support them, love them, build relationships with them, to meet them where they’re at.”

The Dual Language Immersion Program at HCPS has 50 percent native English speakers and 50 percent Spanish speakers. This program was designed as the best way for the school system to educate students to maximize their potential, according to McGrath. It’s found in five of six HCPS elementary schools, a push to have youth bilingual by high school. 

“Now, I feel like I have a global experience right here in Harrisonburg,” McGrath said. “It’s really important for us to look outside our windows and see what’s actually there instead of what we think might be there.”

Contact Mitchell Sasser at sassermp@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.