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A Conversation with FOB

A Conversation with FOB...

No Longer for Youth Alone: Transitional ESOL High School

Most of the articles in this issue of Focus on Basics deal with issues that arise when younger students enter adult basic education programs. Many programs a whole system, in fact are set up specifically for youth. One such program was originally established to serve young newcomers to the United States who were still eligible for high school but whose family situations required that they work. Over time, the age range of the students has widened; now many of the students in the Transitional English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) High School in Fairfax, VA, are more than 24 years old. FOB asked the school's principal, Shelley Gutstein, about the program, its origins, and its life today.

FOB: Tell me about the Transitional ESOL High School.
Shelley: In Virginia, residents have the right to free education until they are 22 years old. However, although many recent immigrants who are not yet 22 remain legally eligible for regular high schools, they just don't fit into the school system. Some are working during the day. Others are uncomfortable in public school because of the disparity between their age and the academics expected at that age level.

In 1991, Fairfax County Public Schools created a transitional ESOL high school (THS), which provides instruction for older ESOL students (18 and older) who wish to earn their high school diplomas. The goal of the program is to raise the English levels of these students to the intermediate level of ESOL so they can continue their studies at one of four adult programs in the county.

Fairfax County is one of the biggest school districts in the country, with 165,000 students. THS offers ESOL, sheltered science and social studies content classes, and mathematics: basic math, an introduction to algebra, and algebra 1. Credits earned for these courses transfer to the adult high school.

FOB: Where did the idea for the school come from?
Shelley: In the early 1990s there was an influx of Central American youth [to Northern Virginia], to get away from war, from poverty. They were underage but independent.
Our assistant superintendent for instruction at the time, Nancy Sprague, who had foresight and brilliance, was at a 7-11 [convenience store] between meetings. She was getting coffee and saw a group of young men. She asked them, "Why aren't you in school?"

They explained that they had to work. She countered, "Would you go to school if you had school at night?" At least, that's the local story. She convened a task force to review the problem, and then put plans for the school into motion. We opened our doors to students in the fall of '91, with a couple of teachers and a counselor.

FOB: And the program?
Shelley: We have always served only ESOL beginners. Fairfax County has three levels of ESOL. We take level one students at THS. Their English ranges from no English of any kind to maybe a second- or third-grade reading level. When our students reach entry proficiency for level two, we move them to one of four alternative or adult high schools. Three of the alternative high schools are fully accredited high schools and they have programs during the day and at night. They take high school juniors and seniors who need a smaller class environment, but also adults. We also have an adult high school that only offers night classes. So our students can go on to earn a high school diploma.

Our academic program provides the same instruction as that taught in Fairfax County high school ESOL programs. We've made some adaptations to the age and interest of our students with an eye towards the courses they will be taking and the needs they will have in their next school. It's an academic program, with math up through algebra 1 and classroom-based instruction. We do offer sheltered science and social studies, to support students as they prepare to go into biology and world history in adult high school.

FOB: You don't offer the GED [tests of General Educational Development]?
Shelley: Fairfax County public schools offers a GED through the adult high schools. THS is in the high school world, not the GED world. The GED, from what I gather, is a fairly difficult test that requires a substantial level of English ability. It does exist in Spanish and could work for some of our Spanish-speaking students who reach 10th or 11th grade before they drop out. For the vast majority of our students, however, by the time their English ability is built up to a sufficient level to take the test, they would have enough course credits to graduate.

FOB: Does that usually happen? Do students usually go on to get their diplomas?
Shelley: We lose some in the transition from studying with us to going on to their next school. On the other hand, we have some who discover and enroll in the daytime program, realizing that they can earn the diploma in less time. They are able to adjust their schedules to do so.

FOB: How is the Transition ESOL High School funded?
Shelley: Part of Nancy Sprague's vision for the program involved removing fees as an additional hurdle that youth would have to overcome in going back into school. Getting them in the door was the objective. By the time they would need to pay fees, they would already have some momentum. I'm not sure how she made that happen, but the transition program is run almost totally on local funds. Students in THS don't have to pay for anything. If they're over 22, they have to pay fees when they matriculate to their next school.

FOB: What sort of data do you have to show to the school department to justify the program?
Shelley: The local government hasn't asked us for data yet, but if they do, we would show them our transition rate. Everyone asks how many people who start with us graduate from high school. That's a difficult number to track. I think a true measure of our worth is the number of students who move on to the next school. About 30 percent of the students enrolled each year move on. How long they stay with us can be as short as the semester, or as long as a couple of years. We have literacy beginners who stay longer.

FOB: What is the next program, the adult high school, like?
Shelley: When the students get to their next school, they continue through Levels Two and Three of the ESOL program. They are also partially mainstreamed into content classes. Sometimes their content teachers have an ESOL co-teacher; different schools have different models. The classes they attend at their next school tend to be smaller, more focused, with lots of international students in them.

FOB: Let's talk about the students. Where are the students from?
Shelley: We're heavily Hispanic, at least 50 percent, and at one of our sites the enrollment is 90 percent Hispanic. We do have quite a variety of backgrounds, representing up to 15 other native languages. We've got students from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Viet Nam, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Algeria, lots and lots of different countries.

Some of the teachers speak Spanish. I have a very international staff. About a third are originally from another country. We span the globe: Ethiopia, Lebanon, Syria, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Thailand, Ireland. We have had Puerto Rican staff as well.

FOB: Ages?
Shelley: The majority of our students are between 18 and 25 years old, but adults of any age are welcome. 16- and 17-year-olds can't attend THS because in Virginia, school attendance is compulsory until age 18. If we admitted 16- and 17-year-olds, we would be required to monitor their attendance in the same way that a daytime high school does. While we do take and submit attendance according to Fairfax County regulation, we aren't staffed for the level of monitoring required when students are legally required to attend.

FOB: And gender?
Shelley: Most of our students are male. From what we understand, some of the men are up here by themselves. Child care is an issue; we are not able to offer childcare at this time. If we could, we'd have a lot more women in our schools.

FOB: What are the biggest problems or issues faced by the program?
Shelley: For me, the biggest challenge is dealing with those factors in the students' lives that get in the way of their coming to school. We ask them to make a tremendous commitment. At a minimum they're with us Monday through Thursday, from 4:15 p.m. to 9:45, in addition to having worked a full time job. Just maintaining the students in school, so we can build continuity and momentum, is hard. The bottom line: if the boss says you have to work overtime, you have to. They lose that momentum and there is nothing I can do about it.

FOB: How about the program's biggest strengths?
Shelley: I'm lucky to have a very talented staff. Some of the best teachers I've ever seen have come our way. We have biweekly faculty meetings; I pull everyone in to a central location. Some Fridays are dedicated to staff development, while on others we hold meetings or work on recruitment of new students. Our teachers and counselors are public school employees; they have full time jobs with benefits, the same as the other teachers and counselors in the county. Our teachers are fully certified in whatever they're teaching. They only difference is that our faculty work a seven-and-a-half hour segment of the day.

We're developing our own curriculum that is tailored to our students but remains in line with county high school ESOL requirements. It takes a content-based approach centered around themes, with standards-based testing, which is always in the back of our minds. Our students in algebra 1 and algebra 2 take [the required high school] end-of-course tests.

FOB: So when your students finish level one ESOL and leave you, they can go either to the adult high school or the alternative high school? How do they decide which to pursue?
Shelley: For some it's a matter of location. Older students may be drawn to the adult high school because fewer credits (20 or 21) are required to graduate than from the alternative high school, which requires 24 credits for the standard diploma. Some of the younger students intent on going to college tend to go to alternative schools. Diplomas from both the adult and alternative high schools fulfill college entrance requirements.

FOB: You share space with regular high schools. What are the pros and cons of that?
Shelley: For the most part it works well. We've worked with the administrations of the various schools where we are so that we have a dedicated office for our guidance counselors; the teachers share classrooms with daytime teachers. The configuration is slightly different at every school: in some cases the teachers have a file cabinet and book case in the classroom they share. At one location, it's a bit more spread out. It depends on the building and the size of the classrooms. But the high schools are quite accommodating for the most part. I order paper and other items for our schools and we buy supplies for our roommates when we can. We own some of our own computers. Our teachers come in at 2:30, Monday thorough Thursday, and at 10:30 on Fridays. Depending on the site where they're working, they may or may not be able to work in their classrooms when they arrive. At sites where they can't, they work in a computer lab in the building until their teacher-roommates have left for the day.

FOB: Do you have any problems having young students together with older students?
Shelley: For the most part we don't have problems with the broad age range, since our students tend to be fairly mature for their ages. The older students tend to demand maturity of the younger students. We have very few discipline issues. They're there because they want to be.