Spanish emerges as dominant second language in county

The Spanish language is the most prevalent foreign language spoken in Fairfax County schools with 42 percent of language minority students. The county’s Hispanic population has experienced a steady growth and now makes up 15.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition, during the 2011-2012 school year, there was an overall increase in the number of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers needed. These teachers have to be certified by the state but don’t need fluency in a
second language.

“The growth in the number of English learners in FCPS is greater than that of the general student population, a trend that is mirrored nationally,” said Darina Walsh, the ESOL coordinator of the Office of Language and Acquisition and Title I.

Not all students in that 42 percent need ESOL services. The metric represents students where Spanish is spoken in the home.

With the growth of the ESOL program came the financial obligations. The school system spends $3,300 per student for ESOL lessons, and the Fairfax County School Board has allocated funds for the fiscal 2013 budget to hire 160 new ESOL teachers in addition to the 860 who are already on staff.

“The ESOL services and allocated funds are responsive to our district’s need to ensure English learners access to high quality curriculum,” Walsh said.

Even though the lack of English-speaking ability can be a hindrance to the students, the ESOL programs are structured to provide the best services possible.

“Our English learners have the same curriculum and the same standards as the other students,” Walsh said. “Their ESOL classes help them articulate their understanding of the content standards.”

Spanish teacher Alexandra Pou, who is from the Dominican Republic, learned English as a second language. She remembers that being immersed in the language helped her learn it.

“I went to school where there were very few Hispanics. The homeroom was in Spanish, but all the other classes were in English,” Pou said. “The difficult part was adjusting to the weather, the clothes, the language and the food. Back in the day, we got baloney sandwiches for lunch, and I still hate baloney to this day. But hey, it was free lunch.”

Junior Jose Acuna came to the U.S. from Bolivia a month before his fourth birthday and took ESOL classes until kindergarten.

“I didn’t know anyone, neither of my parents spoke English, and my older sister was struggling heavily in her school as well,” Acuna said.

Acuna was learning to read at the time, and his extensive reading helped the language come quickly for him.

“My major challenge in learning English was actually preserving my ability to speak Spanish and adjusting to the fact that I had to keep that ability to speak with my parents because they still haven’t learned English,” Acuna said.

Unlike Acuna, seniors Crystel Calderon and Giovani Basurto learned Spanish and English at the same time.

“I don’t remember ever learning English. I learned it alongside Spanish before entering kindergarten, probably through TV,” said Calderon, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 1995. “I’ve kind of always known English.”

Even though Basurto was born in the U.S., he spent a lot of time in Peru, his home country, while learning to speak.

“I did learn Spanish first, but I also learned English in the same year,” Basurto said. “I would get the languages mixed up a bit, but eventually, everything clicked and I recognized Spanish and English are two completely different languages.”

(This article originally appeared in the October 12, 2012 print edition.)