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Diversity Council Sponsors Panel at JMU Immigration Conference
by Daille Pettit

The Libraries and Educational Technologies Diversity Council sponsored a panel discussion on diversity in education that was part of the JMU Department of Foreign Languages, Literature, and Cultures' Conference on Immigration, Assimilation, and Cultural Identity, held March 29 and 30, 2007.  The program, entitled, “The Diversity Experience in the Harrisonburg/Rockingham County Schools” included panel members:


  • Michael Walsh, Director of Admissions at JMU, and Chair, Harrisonburg City School Board
  • Ann Conners, Principal, Spotswood Elementary School
  • Laura Feichtinger McGrath, Elementary ESL Specialist, Harrisonburg City Schools
  • Dr. William O'Meara, Professor, Department of Philosophy & Religion, Professor-in-residence at Harrisonburg H.S.
  • Jim Mazoue, JMU Distance Learning Coordinator, served as panel moderator.


Harrisonburg, VA, has one of the highest incidences in the Commonwealth of Virginia of non-native speakers in its elementary schools, with 39 percent of students being non-English speakers.  Over 40 different languages are spoken in Harrisonburg schools with more than 60 different countries represented.


Diversity Experience Panel Members
"Diversity Experience " panel members Laura Feichtinger McGrath, Ann Conners, Michael Walsh, William O'Meara, and Jim Mazoue, moderator.

This panel discussion provided a hands-on look at the effects of immigration on the local community, specifically in education.  Michael Walsh began by talking about the challenges the Harrisonburg schools face in complying with Federal and State student testing requirements.  The school board’s position is that it is unfair to ask non-English speaking students to take Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) test, which is given in English.  The school system risks losing up to $1 million in funding if ESL students are not given the test.  The federal government uses the results of the SOL test results to determine if schools meet education standards under No Child Left Behind.  The school board has determined that it costs $8000 per year to educate the typical child, but $11,000 yearly for an ESL student.  No matter what the cost, they are committed to providing an education for each of the city’s students.


Ann Conners, principal of Spotswood Elementary School, talked about her strategies in helping students succeed; she has found that keeping non-native speakers in the class accelerates their language learning.  She also emphasized giving each child at her school individual attention.  Classroom size is kept to 18 children per class.  The person with the most direct hands-on experience with non-native English speaking children was Laura Feichtinger McGrath.  In 1991, she was the school district’s only English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher.  Now she is one of four full-time and one part-time ESL instructors.  One program newly introduced that has been very effective is the “newcomers’ class” in which the first year ESL students are grouped together.


Finally, Professor Bill O’Meara explained how the “professor-in-residence” program at the Harrisonburg High School can help immigrant children get into college.  Many of these students must work to support their families and have other financial constraints.  In addition, they do not know what their options are.  In his role, he can act as a mentor to them.  If they choose to go to JMU, their presence increases the diversity on campus.


The panel members de-bunked myths about non-native speakers not wanting to learn English.


A lively question and answer session followed their presentations.


Members of the L&ET Diversity Council:

Ralph Alberico (ex officio)

Claire Clemens

Ellen DeFriece

Jody Hess

Jim Mazoue (who moderated the panel discussion)

Lynne Moir

Daille Pettit (Council Chair)

Patti Williams


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