More Flexibility for ELL Students

Several years ago, I met a young woman working at the ACAC day care, our kids loved her and I asked if she would baby-sit for us on a regular basis. She agreed and Anya* became part of our family. We quickly learned that she had immigrated from Afghanistan and attended Charlottesville High School. She shared many harrowing stories of her time as a refugee and her dreams of her future. She eventually graduated from CHS and went off to college.

These stories are occurring more frequently as Charlottesville becomes more diverse. Living in Charlottesville’s growing diversity makes our small city interesting, with great people, wonderful restaurants and fun cultural events. This also presents opportunities and challenges to many organizations serving our community including our school division.

Charlottesville City School division has approximately 4,200 students with about 330 English Language Learner (ELL) students based on 2014-2015 enrollment numbers. The diversity of our school division has changed throughout the years. Within the past 10 years we’ve had between 30-50 different languages spoken in our schools at one time. With the most popular languages being Spanish, Nepali, Arabic and Chinese.

When ELL students enter the school division, they are given a state sanctioned exam to assess their knowledge of English. Based on their scores, and regardless of age, they are placed in one of five categories. Levels 1-2 Beginners, Level 3-4 Intermediate and Advanced Level 5. Over 90 percent of our ELL students are beginner or intermediate when they enter our school division and most have had little to no formal education in their own home countries. To support these students, the school division employs 15 full time ELL teachers. All of our schools provide translations of school flyers and there is a state hotline that can be used to translate meetings with parents. We also use our Spanish speaking teachers and students to help translate at kindergarten sign up and other communication with families.

The expectation is that all our ELL students will increase their proficiency level each year and pass the regular Standards of Learning (SOL) tests for each subject and grade level. Many of our students do achieve these goals.

In terms of achievement on the SOL tests for our High School ELL students, we see many of them fail to pass by 1-3 questions, which is a very narrow margin. Current graduation requirements mean that a child will be unable to graduate on time because they have missed 1-3 questions on an exam that was taken one day. As a result of these stringent pass rates, last year we saw 25 percent drop out rate of our ELL students. We know that these children attend school regularly, they participate successfully in the school day and pass regular end of course exams in these same subjects. Culturally, students and families are devastated if they cannot participate in the “regular” graduation. They do not feel comfortable to avail themselves to the summer school programs we offer or other remedial efforts.

We know that a gateway into work or any other secondary education begins with a high school diploma. These stringent pass rates are creating a road block to the success of these diligent students that have overcome incredible barriers to come to this country to pursue the American Dream.

For that reason, Charlottesville City Schools with the help of Delegate David Toscano have crafted a bill that allows our students to show their knowledge of subject material through alternative means. This same method has already been approved by State officials for our special education students. Our Delegate David Toscano has introduced this bill in the current Legislative session, HB 936. Students that enter our school division the summer before sixth grade will be permitted to earn local verified credits who have failed English or mathematics SOL by a narrow margin.  

These students and families have overcome incredible odds to enter our country. Let’s make receiving a high school diploma for hard working, smart, diligent students who have proven mastery of the subject matter but narrowly missed passing one standardized test a possibility. Make sure to contact your representatives to support HB 936.

* This student’s name has been changed by the author to protect their family’s privacy.


Amy Laufer is the Chair of the Charlottesville City School Board. She has been an elected member of the board since 2012 and is a former Math and Science Middle School Teacher.