A boom of new students from outside the United States into Henrico County Public Schools prompted an expansion of the school division’s summer program for English learners.
In a music class at Holladay Elementary School on Wednesday morning, rising first-graders took turns playing the xylophone and practicing singing “hello” to their teacher, Johnathan Coward.
Last school year, HCPS enrolled about 820 English learners who were new to the U.S. that year, according to Sarah Modrack, an English for speakers of other languages (ESL) specialist. The year prior, there were 150 new students in that category. In the couple of years before that, roughly 500 students new to the U.S. came to HCPS each year.
The majority of those students last year moved from Afghanistan and up from the southern border. They speak Spanish, Dari and Pashto, alongside several other languages.
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The 340 students in HCPS’ newly expanded ESL program arrived in the U.S. after November, so they have been here for fewer than nine months. In years prior, HCPS has hosted a half-day program for new ESL students, and this is the first year the school division is hosting a full-day program.
The program “is a chance to build up social language but also academic language,” Modrack said. “They’re getting a chance to start the school year off with more English to be able to access the curriculum and be more successful in school.”
ESL students in art class at Holladay Elementary on Wednesday morning molded clay and practiced their English by describing their projects.
Holladay’s ESL program hosts students in grades 1-5 from several schools across the county. New ESL students in grades 6-12 attend a secondary program at Brookland Middle School as well.
In addition to demand created by an influx of new students, the expansion of the ESL summer program was also cultivated through extra funding that came from a federal COVID-19 relief grant.
“We will collect data to see the effect of this and, hopefully, we’ll see a huge effectiveness of preparing our students for the next school year,” Modrack said. “Then, hopefully, we’ll be able to weave it into the local budget.”
‘Children learn from other children’
HCPS’ general education summer school program, the Summer Academy, also expanded this year with an added site and more than 8,000 students attending in person.
“When we had students return and we saw the gaps in learning, especially in those students who were second-graders that had been in Kindergarten when schools closed … there was a sense of urgency,” said Candice Wilkerson, HCPS director of elementary education. “For people who love kids, there’s a sense of urgency to make sure they’re getting everything they need. [The expansion] was [HCPS] being proactive to make sure we are meeting everybody’s needs — and parents asking. But we started planning before they asked.”
Last summer, the HCPS Summer Academy shifted to offering programming for all students — not just those who need academic intervention.
Students who are in need of remediation are mixed in classes with students who are attending the Summer Academy for enrichment purposes. Teachers are able to access testing data for each child in order to differentiate their teaching based on where students are academically.
“There’s this reciprocal learning with children who are more successful in certain academic areas being supportive of their friends,” said Terry Larkin, HCPS Summer Academy coordinator. “Children learn from other children effectively; it’s a really powerful strategy.”
In an effort to recruit teachers, HCPS raised teacher pay for the Summer Academy to $40.86 an hour. Last year, the hourly pay rate was $27.36. More than 600 teachers have been hired so far this year, many of whom are existing employees who serve in other roles during the school year.
“With the pandemic, last year was difficult. This year, it was much easier to get people in,” Wilkerson said. “The attitude about closing gaps and having additional opportunities to support students was important to a lot of teachers this year.”
Most of the personnel costs will be funded through a combination of recurring special revenue funds and one-time federal COVID relief funds, according to HCPS spokesperson Eileen Cox. There are also other 11-month and 12-month employees who support the Summer Academy, and those personnel costs tend to be charged to the general fund.
The Henrico Virtual Academy, the school division’s fully online school, hosted its own summer academy that served 45 elementary students, 28 middle school students and 23 high-schoolers, Cox said.