While many international students entering a secondary school programme in the USA have good English language skills, they often still need EFL support in order to make the most of their studies and engage in social activities. Scott Eckstein from Solebury School in New Hope, PA, says, “I think some families know their children need [ESL] support and see the long-term benefits it can provide – like being able to go to any American college without ESL support. However, some of the families believe their students can succeed without ESL support and at times this leads to the students struggling and is not in their best interest.”
Some schools have been busy developing their English language programmes alongside, or as preparation for, mainstream studies as their student population has grown at the school. Peggy O’Connor at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bellevue, WA, says that the school currently has 32 international students. “[The increase] is due to the fact that we added a residential hall,” she says, adding that there were about five-to-10 students in homestays each year previously.
The school has also added ESL History, EFL English and ESL Support courses for the new students. “This is the first year for ESL as we have never had enough international students to support the need. The students we accepted previously had to have a high enough level to succeed in an independent rigorous college preparation programme. With the addition of the boarding facility we began the ESL programme,” she adds.
ESL programmes at secondary schools can vary immensely in their scope, but all are designed to help international students gain the skills and confidence to fully engage in their mainstream studies. In some cases this means that language support programmes are anticipated to be needed for the first term or year of study only. Lawrence Sampleton from St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, TX, says, “We offer an English transition course for the first year the student is at our school. All other courses are mainstream. Tutoring support is offered in the international office.”
Elsewhere, a whole range of English language programmes may be on offer making the school a more attractive and viable proposition for a greater number of international students. Eckstein says, “We offer several levels of ESL classes ranging from low beginner to advanced. We have added more levels over the year to be able to accommodate students of different levels.”
While the majority of English language programmes at secondary schools are focussed on bringing students up to speed linguistically to meet their academic needs, some schools have branched out to offer programmes touching on different areas of potential interest. Besant Hill School in Ojai, CA, offers a range of summer EFL programmes, including SAT preparation, English language and American culture and a two-week farm apprentice programme. “Taught by professional farmers and environmental educators, students will learn about organic farming and gardening, applied soil science and discuss social and environmental issues related to agriculture,” says Kristen Kaschub at the school. “On the farm, students will engage in field lectures, be exposed to real-life models of practice and then will be given time to implement their learning with guidance.”
For many schools, the ESL programmes on offer, either as support or as stand-alone courses, are important when it comes to marketing the secondary school programmes to students overseas. However, schools demand that students have a competent command of English before they start, and have various ways of testing language ability from across the world – often consisting of a mixture of recognised English language tests and personal communication via Skype or webcam. Eckstein explains, “We use the Toefl exam. We have students submit a video where they answer questions, and if necessary they do a Skype evaluation with our ESL Director.”
At St Stephen’s Episcopal School, students have to submit SSAT scores, writing samples and undergo a personal interview, according to Sampleton, “Students may submit Toefl scores, but this is optional.” Meanwhile, at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, prospective students have to provide a Toefl computer-based test score along with an ISEE or SSAT score, as well as conduct a Skype interview. However, once at the school, ESL testing remains an integral part of an international student’s curriculum. “Upon arrival at orientation in the summer, the students will take a paper-based Toefl prep test for placement, and, depending on the grade, will have paper-based Toefl prep testing at the end of every semester and beginning of school year until they’re in the 11th grade,” says O’Connor, “at which point they will begin taking the computer-based Toefl [test] for college placement.”
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