Inside one of the trailers at Lamont Elementary School, two classes of multilingual learners were practicing comparing and contrasting. Separated only by a divider, a small group of third graders discussed tornadoes and hurricanes; for the second graders, it was polar bears and pandas.

The sound carried across the room, but the kids, many of them immigrants to Prince George’s County from countries such as El Salvador and Mexico, stayed focused. The entire lesson was in English, a foreign language for these students.

The school doesn’t have a ton of space, but it has one of the highest English proficiency scores among multilingual learners in Maryland. At Lamont, the success of these students is a schoolwide effort, staff members say. Sure, they have five dedicated English language development teachers, but every educator in the building gets the opportunity to learn critical strategies to teach kids whose primary language is not English.

These students are the state’s fastest-growing group, making up 12% of the student population. More than half of them are in elementary schools, where they must first learn English to understand foundational lessons in math, science and history.

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Even among schools with lots of English learners, they aren’t all catching up at the same pace. On the Maryland School Report Card, the state’s system for evaluating schools, elementary schools score an average of 6.6 out of 10 points in teaching English to native speakers of other languages. Lamont’s score is 8.3.

A number of other Prince George’s County elementary schools with a lot of multilingual learners get similarly high marks.

It’s not an easy feat. Lamont teachers who specialize in this field have only 30 to 45 minutes with the students each day in classrooms shared with other teachers. But they say they have the support to do it.

Learning at Lamont

One morning this spring, Gladys Tarkeh’s class of first grade multilingual students at Lamont Elementary was reading “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

Her six students were on their Chromebooks listening to the fable. Once they finished, Tarkeh instructed them to talk to their partners about what they thought the lesson was, then asked for volunteers to share.

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Gladys Tarkeh teaches her first grade English language development class at Lamont Elementary School in Prince George’s County. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“If you stay focused on the race, you could win and then you could beat the guy who’s trying to race you,” a student responded.

“Beautiful,” Tarkeh said, noting that the first grader used one of their vocabulary words, “beat.”

As is the case across the state, the majority of multilingual learners are Spanish speakers, according to Jennifer Greenwood-Shields, an assistant principal at the school.

Students are identified as needing English language learning services through a survey when they enroll. Then they are given a test to determine the amount of extra instruction they need. They can test out of the program when their results show proficiency — a strong enough grasp of the language to succeed in other subjects taught in English.

Lamont has five English language development teachers, but they are not the only ones responsible for supporting multilingual learners. Greenwood-Shields said that was the mindset of school leadership when she started at Lamont 12 years ago.

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“The principal at the time understood how important it was for the mindset of teachers to be like, ‘these are not just their kids over there.’ These are our kids, and we all have to work to support these students,” said Greenwood-Shields, a former English language development teacher.

The district offers professional development in English language learning and Lamont teachers take advantage of it, she said. The school also had a mentor for Lamont’s new English language development teachers. The goal is to bring her back to help general education teachers use strategies that help English learners.

Gladys Tarkeh, left, and Claudia Canlas teach in a room they share with another teacher at Lamont Elementary School. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

If every Maryland teacher knew those strategies, multilingual students would learn English — and other subjects — faster, said Derya Kulavuz-Onal, president of Maryland TESOL. The nonprofit is focused on improving teaching the language.

In Florida, where Kulavuz-Onal received her doctorate, aspiring teachers are required to learn how to teach non-native English speakers. But in Maryland they can avoid those courses.

Kulavuz-Onal teaches ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) instruction at Salisbury University on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Not many of the students studying to be teachers are enrolled in the ESOL certification program, she said. The school offers a minor in ESOL, something Kulavuz-Onal tries to suggest to students, but there’s not much interest.

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“We just keep saying, ‘you will have some multilingual learners in your classroom in the future, please come,’” she said.

By the time those teachers get to a Maryland classroom, Kulavuz-Onal explained, they struggle to teach those students. They’re not equipped with ESOL education strategies, and they often do not speak more than one language.

“When none of these are ensured for teachers before they get certified, then they end up failing the multilingual learners,” she said.

A Maryland education department work group has suggested that colleges train teachers to work with these students. It’s one of nine recommendations that will take time to implement, Assistant State Superintendent Chandra Haislet said.

Kulavuz-Onal said it helps to have general education and ESOL educators teach in the same classroom, especially in “sheltered models,” or classes exclusive to multilingual learners. In those classes, two teachers collaborate to make sure lessons in math or science, for example, are digestible for the students. For that model to work, it requires a lot of collaboration and planning, luxuries many teachers do not have.

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But there are other strategies within the teacher’s control, Kulavuz-Onal said, such as choosing simpler words a non-native speaker would be more likely to understand. ChatGPT can help with that, she said. Teachers could insert the reading text the class is discussing into the artificial intelligence tool and ask it to write a simpler version that maintains the key vocabulary and other important content.

“From there, you can work on how you can make it useful for your learners,” she said.

Claudia Canlas teaches her ELD class at Lamont Elementary School in New Carrollton. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Requiring teachers to adopt these strategies should be seen as an opportunity to reach more students instead of adding more work, said Teresa Timmons-Parrott, manager of the state’s Multilingual Education office.

“It’s not something extra; it’s just a way to be effective in the classroom with our students,” she said.

‘Every child feels at home’

Tarkeh, chair of the English language development department, said they invite teachers to observe their lessons to pick up some of their strategies.

Tarkeh noticed her students consistently struggling with comparing, contrasting and finding the main idea in a sentence. She and her colleagues simplify the concept by asking students to compare animals, fruit or people. After a discussion, the class cancompare purposes behind two authors’ stories.

In Gwija Park’s second grade class, out in the trailers, six students were comparing polar bears and pandas.

Students placed a characteristic that was printed on a card inside a Venn diagram. Two students put the card that said “backbones” in the center, indicating it’s a similarity the bears share.

Two students in Gwija Park’s second grade ELD class compare and contrast giant pandas and polar bears at Lamont Elementary School. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Every class is different, said Claudia Canlas, who teaches fourth and fifth grade multilingual students. Her newcomer group, who arrived in the U.S. less than a year ago and scored low on the proficiency assessment, reviews the weather and calendar at the start of each class to build repetition in the language. She noticed how beneficial that was when she started to teach her own daughter Spanish.

“I started to use the same phrases over, and it’s really routine that helps students really grasp the language and gives them that confidence,” Canlas said.

Also part of the routine is circle time, when she asks how the students are doing, gives them writing prompts or practices their vocabulary. Routine doesn’t mean there is a lack of rigor.

“When we come in here, we got 30 minutes,” she said. “I’m not playing around.”

And the kids seem up to the challenge. On one spring morning, they started working right away, Canlas said, and she didn’t have to “hound them.”

They’ve also instilled peer accountability, Tarkeh said, and embraced representation. If a student from Mexico reads a lesson about a child from his home country with similar experiences, it could be motivating and engaging to inspire a sense of belonging.

“It’s something we truly value at Lamont Elementary School, making sure that each and every child feels at home,” she said.

Baltimore Banner reporter Greg Morton contributed to this article.

This story is published in partnership with as part of the Baltimore News Collaborative, a project exploring the challenges and successes experienced by young people in Baltimore. The collaborative is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. News members of the collaborative retain full editorial control.