Commentary: Recommendations show how Maryland can support English learners

Dual-language programs boost achievement, help empower immigrant students

Published 5/5/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT

The  Community WELL’s Annapolis Advocacy Night

The evidence is plentiful to demonstrate dual-language immersion programs lead to superior academic achievement, promote multilingualism and encourage multicultural understanding. These benefits cross linguistic, cultural and socioeconomic student identities — an imperative given the current political, economic and social climate.

The benefits are experienced by emergent multilingual students who are English learners, and by English first-language students acquiring an additional language.

We established the Community Workgroup on English Language Learners in 2021 to organize and advocate with immigrant students, their families and their teachers in Maryland schools. Our grassroots, unstaffed coalition doesn’t have a budget, but what we lack in material resources, we more than make up for in ganas (desire), chutzpah and passion.

We are writing to voice our disappointment in the unwillingness of the General Assembly this past session to empower immigrant students. We are compelled by the urgency of the moment to blaze a path forward with the determined optimism of our students and their families. We are aware the empowerment agendas of grassroots coalitions such as ours do not turn into laws in a year or even two.

What we can do now is lay out short-term opportunities for the 2024 General Assembly session. We are also putting forward a medium-term education policy vision based on the desires and aspirations of hundreds of educators and immigrant families across Maryland. They filled out our multilingual surveys in 2021, participated in a listening session we co-hosted with Maryland State Department of Education leaders with live interpretation in 2022 and turned out in force for our Annapolis advocacy night in 2023.

A prime opportunity for the 2024 General Assembly session is a revised and reintroduced version of HB1098, the Multilingualism is an Asset Act of 2023. Passage of this bill would have important implications for how Maryland educates multilingual English learners. It would revise the state’s education funding formula to ensure that the learning of those students gets more support. Further, it would set aside $10 million in grant funding for districts to develop dual-language immersion programs throughout the state.

Community WELL’s medium-term vision is outlined in a draft policy paper we published. Our recommendations are:

  • Maximize accuracy, collaboration, transparency, time-efficiency and opportunity when assessing language development of multilingual English learners.
  • Enhance resources for newcomer students, especially older multilingual English learners.
  • Center culturally relevant and responsive teaching, as well as mental health services and other school-related programming.
  • Take an asset-based approach to the classification of multilingual English learners for accountability purposes, including those who have been reclassified, whose parents have refused services for them and who are classified as “long-term English learners.”
  • Correct a flawed system of misplacement for students with intersecting language and disability identities, and ensure students in these programs and their families receive the resources that are legally guaranteed to them but are often too slow to materialize. This is in large part because these accessibility requirements are often underfunded or unfunded mandates.
  • Ensure authentic community engagement, well-funded public adult education and timely school-home communication.
  • Fund adequate school staffing levels and programming.
  • Build equitable pathways to higher education and careers.

These eight medium-term priorities for state and local decision-makers spring from input from hundreds of the Marylanders most directly affected by the strengths and inequities of Maryland schools. The draft is a living document you can contribute to by emailing us (, or commenting on it before we release the final version.

These policies would significantly benefit the lives of our kids. For example, a sixth-grade student arrived from Central America at the beginning of the school year. At first, he was so happy to be in school and would participate with the few English words and phrases he knew. But as time passed, teachers noticed his positive demeanor diminished; he would not even accept help.

His teachers asked him what was going on. He said, “Me siento muy frustrado porque no entiendo nada” (“I feel so frustrated because I don’t understand anything.”) His teacher’s heart broke. No matter how much the teachers tried to make class accessible and engaging, they were not allowed to provide the foundational Spanish literacy instruction needed for him and thousands of Maryland students like him to succeed. Enacting HB1098′s dual-language school funding provision and Community WELL’s proposals would systemically address this inequity.

Moving forward together, decision-makers must adopt a bottom-up agenda informed by the experiences of immigrant families and educators across our state. Building this coalition is not just ethical and equitable — it is pragmatic, and prudent. To leave no one behind, we must ensure the path forward is chosen collectively.

Carlos Orbe, Jr. is the public affairs and communications specialist for Maryland Latinos Unidos and lives in Montgomery County. Ellen O’Neill is a founding board member of The Reading League Maryland and executive director of Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center, and lives in College Park. Yanna Isel Otero Asmar is a teacher of English to speakers of other languages at a middle school in the Baltimore region. Owen Silverman Andrews is an instructional specialist of English language learning at a Baltimore-area community college and is pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of Virginia.

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