Those numbers have profound financial implications for the school system, which spends $3,300 per student for ESOL lessons, county budget records show. With 7,652 new students in ESOL this year, that represents an additional $25.3 million.
Though federal law requires schools to offer English language lessons, federal funding cannot be used for such instruction, putting most of the costs in the hands of local governments.
“There is not an understanding in the community of how drastic this ESOL population growth is,” said Fairfax School Board member Ryan McElveen (At-Large). “When you have people that can’t speak the language and can’t learn other subjects because of that, it’s going to be a major hindrance to their education.”
McElveen said the board allocated funds to the fiscal 2013 budget to hire about 160 new ESOL teachers. Currently, 860 are on the faculty, officials said.
Immigrants have been fueling most of the population growth in Fairfax for years, census figures show. More than one in four county residents are foreign-born, and one-third speak a language other than English at home.
As a result, the number of students who need English instruction is the fastest-growing student population in the county, said Teddi Predaris, the county’s director of ESOL services. The same is true across the country and around the region.
In neighboring Arlington County, for example, ESOL students make up 16 percent of total enrollment. In Montgomery County, they account for 13.6 percent of all students; in the District, 10 percent.
More than 160 foreign languages are spoken in Fairfax County schools, the most prevalent being Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Arabic and Mandarin Chinese.
Many immigrant families are drawn to Fairfax, the nation’s second-most affluent county, with a median household income of more than $105,000, by the reputation of its public schools. That Fairfax “is a very international community, multilingual and multicultural, is an attraction” for foreign-language speaking families, Pedaris said.
While some ESOL students are immigrants themselves, the majority were born in the United States to immigrant parents. But not all the children who live in homes where English is a second language need additional English instruction, Predaris said. She said many children are bilingual and are already proficient English speakers.