HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — In a traditional school year, Henrico County Public Schools have around 3,500 students who speak English as a Second Language (ESL) enrolled throughout the school district. This past year, however, the system saw around 4,400 ESL students enrolled.

In response to this influx in international students, HCPS is expanding summer ESL programs. This means more hours, more classes, and overall — more learning.

ESL Program Coordinator Deidre Cox says more than half of the enrolled ESL students are from Afghanistan — a trend stemming from increased Afghan families seeking refuge in the United States since 2021 when the United States pulled troops from the country. However, a number of different languages are represented in the population of new students, including Portuguese and Spanish.

According to the program’s leaders, the mission is to adequately prepare these students in the summer for the new school year, so they don’t fall behind their English-speaking peers come fall.

“I’m really hoping because of this program these kids will be able to go into school knowing a little more English but also having a little more confidence,” Cox said.

In addition to expanding the number of hours of learning happening in these summer program, administrators worked to diversify coursework — taking a more hands-on approach this year. Program coordinators introduced music, art, and physical education classes to the summer ESL curriculum to help students further familiarize themselves with the English language.

This year’s summer programming also took-on a more “focused” approach, emphasizing educating those with the least experience speaking English.

“Our focus is really on helping those newcomers develop the language,” Cox said. “And hopefully see some improvements the upcoming school year and also on assessments that we do throughout the year.”

Merle James, who has been teaching for 32 years, said she has become so invested in ESL programming she plans to work to be formally certified for ESL teaching.

“To make that connection, to see that light go out, see that spark in the eye of a child…” James said of her motivation for teaching English language learners.

Henrico County Public Schools is hiring more ESL teachers for the upcoming school year. More information can be found at https://henricoschools.us/careers/