Parents, educators and advocates concerned about a plan to restructure ESOL programs in Montgomery County crowd into a Board of Education meeting in Rockville in March. (Donna St. George/The Washington Post)

The number of students learning to speak English as they take classes at Northwood High School has tripled in three years. Many of those 350 teenagers fled Central America as unaccompanied minors. Some missed years of education. Not everyone graduates from high school in four years.

Although many consider such students among the neediest in Montgomery County’s school system, advocates and educators have raised increasing concern about how they will be served as the district restructures its division of ESOL, or English for speakers of other languages.

Many pose questions about funding, leadership, accountability and outreach workers, worried that the county’s ESOL programs could be diminished. Some held up posters at a packed Board of Education meeting in March.

“What is the plan?” one sign asked. Another: “I stand for my students.”

The plans to restructure come as the number of English-language learners has climbed nearly 40 percent since 2007 in the suburban school system, with more than 22,000 such students this school year — about 14 percent of the system’s 156,000 enrollment.

School officials say that the plan is to absorb ESOL into a broader office of student services and engagement. The planned changes in leadership and staffing aim to increase capacity and to integrate ESOL staff across offices and schools.

Services for families won’t be cut, nor will positions that support schools, said Maria Navarro, chief academic officer for the 202-school Montgomery system. She said that she is still seeking feedback from employees and that the plan has not been finalized.

Others say there is a lack of detail and clarity.

“We need more resources for the families and students who are part of these programs, and we’re not sure how all these services are going to be provided under the restructuring,” said Kristin Ruopp, head of Northwood’s ESOL department and co-chair of the ESOL Collaboration Committee of the Montgomery County Education Association.

Educators sent more than 100 emails to Ruopp’s committee, she said, and many of them objected to a part of the restructuring plan that would do away with the top ESOL post, the director, which is a position they see as critical for advocacy of ESOL teachers, staff and students.

“They see that as the elimination of the voice of ESOL,” said Margarita Bohórquez, an ESOL instructional specialist who also co-chairs the committee.

School officials say that they are creating a supervisory position that will be responsible for state and federal ESOL requirements and for monitoring ESOL staffing and achievement data. Ruopp and others say that although such a job is important, it does not replace having an advocate at the top level of leadership in the large school district.

Diego Uriburu, co-chair of the Montgomery County Latino Advocacy Coalition, said the school system needs more funding and broader changes to improve student outcomes. “Saying you’re going to restructure the ESOL office does not mean things are going to work,” he said.

Uriburu said there are serious problems that need attention: Substitute teachers lead many ESOL classes because there are not enough full-time, certified teachers, some U.S.-born children don’t get the support they need and are stuck in ESOL classes for years, and the achievement gap is glaring.

In one middle school, he noted, 17 percent of Latino students and just 6 percent of ESOL students passed algebra by eighth grade with a C or higher, compared with 90 percent of white students.

“It’s unfathomable,” he said. “How is it possible that after so many years of knowing this reality that these numbers continue to be what they are?”

Navarro, the chief academic officer, said the school system is committed to addressing achievement gaps and is focused more intensively on its literacy and math efforts. “We have much more work to do,” she said.

School officials said that a majority of ESOL teachers are certified and that enrollment growth after the school year begins often leads to midyear understaffing and use of long-term substitute teachers. The district is looking at adding more certified teachers early in the year so that they can step in as enrollment rises.

They also said that the decentralizing of ESOL services will mean more outreach workers and counselors will be available to work more closely with school communities to better support families and ensure that students are enrolled in the right programs.

Advocates and educators voice strong concern about how the district is reorganizing ESOL outreach workers — known as parent-community coordinators — who help families with language barriers navigate such issues as grades, truancy, trauma and homelessness. They worry that the shift could reduce services to ESOL families at middle and high schools.

In Montgomery, a majority of ESOL students are Spanish-speaking, but 127 languages are represented, including Amharic, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese and French.

“The families are afraid they are not going to have someone in their community that they can turn to and that can help them navigate the school system and engage in their kids’ education,” said Nora Morales, a Montgomery County parent and advocate.

Morales said that the restructuring lacks important details about such issues as teacher training and that it appears to be driven by budget shortfalls. “We have not seen an actual plan or strategy in place,” she said.

The district says its outreach workers will be based in elementary schools but will support all families within a cluster of schools. “Pupil-personnel workers” will be based in middle and high schools and but also will work with elementary schools.

A concern with that arrangement, Ruopp says, is that pupil-personnel workers have much less experience with ESOL families and are not all bilingual.

The district’s budget request for the next school year includes about 36 additional ESOL teachers and counselors to respond to projected enrollment, and 10 additional outreach workers. Montgomery officials say staffing has kept pace with ESOL enrollment, showing a similar percentage of increase since 2009.

Maria Portela, a parent volunteer and advocate for Latino families, said the changes could mean more collaboration, but “the basic problem for us is they don’t have the capacity to address the volume of needs that we have. They are not adding people. Moving people around is not going to solve the problem.”

For students, she said, the results are critically important.

“It’s so easy for them to drop out,” she said. “If they don’t see they are going somewhere, if they don’t see they are learning English and getting somewhere in our society, they will leave school . . . and get whatever labor or job they can get.”