Enrollment in ESL Program Shows Signs Of Slowing

By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Enrollment in the Loudoun public school system's English as a Second Language program has surged more than 2,000 percent over the past decade, a reflection of the county's boom in foreign-born residents.

But ESL enrollment has edged up only 7.5 percent over the past year, after increasing by at least 31 percent each of the previous four years -- and school officials predict the slow-growth trend will continue in the 2008-09 school year.

What gives?

"The general slowdown in the economy is the biggest factor," said Alessio A. Evangelista, supervisor of Loudoun's ESL program. "There seems to be fewer jobs here. And historically, people come here from other countries for jobs."

Construction jobs in particular have taken a hit in Loudoun because of the slumping housing market, experts say. Many of these jobs have been held in recent years by immigrants.

Evangelista said an anti-illegal immigration movement in Northern Virginia also may have figured into the slowdown in ESL enrollment. Lawmakers in several counties, including Loudoun, over the past year have called for restricting services to illegal immigrants. That, in turn, may have encouraged some workers to look for jobs elsewhere.

"I suspect the decrease in [ESL] growth also has to do with the general appearances" that Loudoun has become less friendly to immigrants, Evangelista said. "But is the decrease because of this rhetoric? It's really hard to say. All we know is that we are not growing as fast."

Last year, the county's Board of Supervisors, then Republican-controlled, passed a resolution aimed at driving out illegal immigrants, who they said had brought crime to Loudoun neighborhoods. In January, a new board controlled by Democrats backed away from that effort. But the illegal-immigration issue was again front-and-center in Loudoun last month with the arrest of 59 foreign-born workers at Lansdowne Resort.

Loudoun is spending $17.4 million on its ESL program this year so that immigrant students "will understand, speak, read, and write English in order to function in American society," the school system's Web site says.

Evangelista said the 133 teachers and two administrators in the program do not attempt to learn whether the students and their families are in the United States legally.

"I avoid this kind of conversation," Evangelista said. "Our job -- my job -- is to help these students. We accept those who come to live here and want to go to school here. We just want to give these kids a top-notch education."

The School Board had planned to increase the ESL program's fiscal 2009 budget by about $3 million, school system spokesman Wayde Byard said. But with enrollment in the program slowing unexpectedly, and the board needing to bring its spending in line with the county's overall budget, school officials cut $1.9 million from that increase, citing a "dramatic leveling off" in the growth of the ESL student population.

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