Thousands of English learners in Clayton, Henry schools

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Curt Yeomans and Johnny Jackson


G.P. Babb Middle School eighth-grader, Thao Nguyen, 13, said she spoke little English when she came to the Forest Park school, from Vietnam, a year and a half ago.

Now, she speaks the language fluently, with little hint of an accent. Her English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher, Kim Swaim, said she expects the youth to be able to move out of ESOL, and into traditional classes at the end of this school year.

"Research shows it takes five to seven years for them to become English proficient, and she's reached that point in two years," Swaim said. "That's very impressive. She's a very quick learner, though."

For 10,552 students enrolled in Clayton County and Henry County schools, English is not their primary language. These are the pupils known, in education terms, as "English Language Learners" (ELL), or "Primary Home Language Other Than English" students.

These are students who, in general, have come to the U.S., from foreign countries, already fluent in another language, but who do not know how to speak English, according to Chantal Normil, the ESOL director for Clayton County Public Schools. School systems work with these students to acclimate them to English, so they can do well in, and out of, school, she said.

"It's an expectation under Title III of the [Federal] No Child Left Behind Act," Normil said. "We have to make sure these students are able to do well in school, and that support needed to succeed in school is made available to them."

Normil said there are 9,631 ELL students enrolled in Clayton County schools. She added that these students make up a large chunk -- a 19 percent chunk to be exact -- of the school system's 50,457 pupils.

Greg Benton, Henry County Schools' assistant superintendent of learning and teaching services, said his district has 921 ELL students, or 0.2 percent of the district's more than 41,000-student population.

Within Clayton's ELL student population, there are 4,645 students taking ESOL classes, according to Normil. The rest are proficient enough in English to be moved into traditional classes, she said. In Henry County schools, approximately 600 ELL students are taking ESOL classes, according to Benton.

What are the most common languages?

Although there are more than 60 languages spoken by students in Clayton Schools, the majority of the district's ELL student population can be broken down into five languages, according to Normil: Spanish (76 percent of ELL students), Vietnamese (14 percent), "Other African Languages" (3 percent), Khmer/Cambodian (2.5 percent), and Lao (1.8 percent).

She added that the school system has an International Center to help ELL students enroll in school, in their native language, and it also has community liaisons, interpreters and bilingual paraprofessionals to help students' parents at events, such as parent-teacher conferences, and Parent-Teacher Association meetings.

Benton said Henry County Schools' most commonly spoken languages, outside of English, are: Spanish, Vietnamese, French, Gujarati (an Indo-European language) and Haitian Creole.

English education on the front line

In Clayton County Schools, the size of the district-wide ESOL department has grown by leaps and bounds in just the last five years. "It's really doubled ...," said Clayton's ESOL director, Chantal Normil. She said there were 42 ESOL teachers in the school system five years ago. There are now 98 ESOL teachers.

The ESOL classes are where ELL students learn the basics of speaking English, said Cynthia Stephens, a Henry County ESOL teacher, who works with 30 students from Dutchtown, Hampton and Luella middle schools.

"For students who are new to the county, we focus on language-acquisition skills through the use of books, printed materials, speaking, and computer programs," she said. "For students who speak [some] English, we work on reading comprehension, speaking and writing skills, primarily."

Swaim said students start with simplistic methods of language acquisition. "The first step is, we introduce them to the basic commands that are used every day in a classroom, such as 'be quiet,' 'stand up,' 'sit down,' and 'turn to page such and such,'" she said. "We work with them on flashcards, and site words. It's like that first year, it's vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary."

Swaim added that students are required to have a translation dictionary, that translates words between English and their native language. The classes also have several translation dictionaries, for several languages, and the students use the Rosetta Stone computer program to help them, she said. In order to get out of the ESOL program, a student has to take an exit test, and earn a score of at least 5, with 6 being the highest possible score, Swaim said.

Stephens said it can sometimes be a challenge, however. "These students often need additional time to process material due to the language differences," she said. "They may also need concepts and vocabulary explained in a different way, demonstrated, or illustrated to help them to understand the meaning."

G.P. Babb Middle School eighth-grader, Thao Nguyen, said, however, she believes her biggest success in the ESOL program, and the reason why she will move out of it so quickly, can be found in her English vocabulary. The vocabulary-based work she has done with Swaim, and other Babb Middle School ESOL teachers has been what helped her the most, she said.

"It's helped me learn a lot of new words," she said. "My reading has really improved, because of this class. When I got here, I couldn't read very much English, and now it's pretty easy."