Norfolk Public Schools making sure everyone can learn

School systems across the nation have adopted English as a Second Language programs to help students interact with their peers and teachers at school, and work to the best of their abilities.

(ESL students) are lost in classes with majority native speakers, where subjects are taught using an academic language which the newcomers do not  posses,” said Rita Yashaev, an ESL teacher for Norview Middle and Larchmont Elementary schools. “Students, enrolled in the ESL program, first learn social language so  they are able to communicate with their peers. They are taught academic language as well so they are able function in class.”


Norfolk is a “cornerstone of diversity,” said Meredith Hobson, the new senior coordinator for foreign language and english as a second language program at Norfolk Public Schools.  

With more than 1,000 identified students enrolled in the Norfolk school system representing several different languages, it can indeed be challenging. For three days last week, core and ESL teachers completed a brief training session to prepare for the upcoming school year.

“We work to empower core teachers to be better instructors to the ESL kids,” said Katherine Arroyo, department chairwoman for leadership, foreign languages and ESL at Norview High School.

Because these are the classes where English Learners students will be spending most of their time during the school year, these teachers need to be able to properly communicate with their students.

We want to educate English learners, not just to learn English but to be leaders, to care for other people and to look for solutions rather than just point the problems,” said Samary Breshears, an ESL teacher for both Northside and Blair Middle School.

Increasing rates and concentration

In recent years the number of English Learners in Norfolk have steadily increased, more so in the past three years. Hobson pointed out while some of the more downtown schools might have not noticed a big change, schools near Tidewater and Oceanview have.

Our students are from over 40 different countries and represent around 27 different languages spoken,” Hobson wrote in an email.

Norview’s adoption of the Newcomer Student program three years ago was enacted to be able to help these diverse students. This optional program is recommended to families with students that have a low level in English proficiency, so that they will be able to get the concentrated help needed to be successful.

“For many of our the students at Norview, they are the first in their family to graduate high school,” said Chelsea Smith, another ESL teacher from Norview High School. “Particularly for the newcomer students, it might not be possible for them to be able to graduate without the help of the ESL program.”

“The number of students has increased due to our working to specialize in ESL services at our school. Families tell new families and encourage their friends to move to Norview thanks to all the support,” Arroyo said.

The Newcomer program isn’t the only reason so many English learners have made their home in Norfolk. Norfolk is home to a NATO base, whose officers often bring their families, cultures and languages with them from around the world. Because of the increasing numbers of students seeking ESL services, other schools, like Granby High School, are widening the parameters of their program.    


All teachers are paid by the state. “No ESL teachers are federally funded,” Hobson said. While some federal funding is available, it’s “just a supplement — just icing on top,” she said.

There are limitations to what federal money can be used for in the school system. Hobson said she is unable to use that money to hire another teacher, tutor or translator. Instead, funds are used to make sure that the program meets federal and state guidelines, and to make sure all students in the program are served fairly.


The number of English learners has affected more than the need for ESL teachers at Norfolk Public Schools. The atmosphere also changed as English learners and the rest of the student body began to integrate with each other, said Amanda Gainer, a recent Norview High School graduate. She described the environment as “somewhat hostile … not a whole lot of interaction overall.”

Now that has cooled down and the “community has embraced them.” as Hobson would say. There are still more way our school community can be involved and help students feel more comfortable along with their families.  Having parents participate in PTA meeting or Literacy nights for the different languages. Anything that can help communicate with the families and others in the community what the ESL program stands for and what it is doing for all of our students.