After steady growth for nearly a decade, Martha’s Vineyard public schools are preparing for even more increases in their population of non-English-speaking students, as a changing Island community prompts school leaders to examine resources and programming around English language learners.

From 2011 through 2016, the number of English learners in the Vineyard school system tripled — growing from a fledgling program of 70 students to 210. Today, that number has swelled to a record 335 English learners — about 15.4 per cent of the Island’s total student body, nearly equal to the number of special education students.

The vast majority of the English learners are Portuguese-speaking Brazilians.

“If you went back, you would see that it was just a pretty much exponential growth,” said Leah Palmer, director of ELL services for the Vineyard public schools. “It definitely impacts the overall [school] demographics significantly because it’s not like everything is growing, it’s just really our ELL program.”

At the Edgartown School, English learners make up 21.2 per cent of the student body — a 9 per cent jump since 2016, according to a report from the public school central office. At the Tisbury School, English learners comprise 25.8 per cent of the total population, while at the Oak Bluffs School the number is 17.8 per cent. By comparison, this year, the state average hovered at a 10.8 per cent ratio.

The number of non-native English speakers in the schools is even higher, Ms. Palmer said, including students the school is monitoring after exiting the ELL program. This year, 36 per cent of students at the Edgartown School spoke a language other than English at home. At the Tisbury School, the figure was 43 per cent.

“The numbers absolutely speak to changing Island demographics,” said superintendent of the Vineyard public schools Matthew D’Andrea.

As the population of English learners has grown, staffing the quickly-growing program has at times been a challenge, Ms. Palmer said.

At the Edgartown School, three ESL teachers serve 83 English learners, with two additional general interpreters providing translation aid to students and families. Principal Shelley Einbinder said she is looking to hire a fourth ESL teacher next year.

The Tisbury School has three teachers to support its 83 English learners, while the Oak Bluffs School has three instructors for 73 students. Generally speaking, a 25-1 student-teacher ratio is the cap, before providing support becomes a challenge, Ms. Palmer said.

“Our schools are complicated because they are kindergarten through eighth grade, so a teacher could have 25 students, but they are in all grades and you just would not be able to schedule that,” said Ms. Palmer.

The pandemic has brought added pressures to an ESL staff already spread thin, Ms. Palmer said, with at least one licensed ESL teacher at each school transitioning into general teaching roles to accommodate pandemic learning.

“We’ve been as creative as possible trying to use all the resources we have to support every child in English language development support, but that is very challenging when we don’t have the staffing to support it,” said Ms. Palmer, noting the recent addition of a Sheltered English Immersion coach to support teachers and students through remote learning.

The recent growth has also brought longer-term challenges.

Last year, of the 16 students who dropped out of the regional high school before graduation, eight were tagged as English language learners, according to the district’s profile from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education records. Put another way, 12.3 per cent of the high school’s 65 English learners left school, making ELL students the population with the highest dropout rate at the school by a margin of over 5 per cent.

“It’s alarming,” said Ms. Palmer, who noted the trend is due in part to a transient population of students, some of whom return to Brazil after only a few years. “This isn’t new, but what’s happened is that we have more English learners . . . now, when you have a higher percentage, that impact on the school is greater,” she said.

Overall the high school dropout rate is low, and was at 2.5 per cent last year.

At the high school, 10.9 per cent of students now participate in the ELL program, a 6.8 per cent jump since 2016, according to program data.

High school principal Sara Dingledy said the school is actively finding ways to support its English learners, including by hiring a transition coordinator to help students make alternative career plans out of high school. Last year, Ms. Dingledy also created a newcomer program, offering math and science courses for students who arrive with little to no fluency — about a third of the English learners in the school system.

“We’re trying to figure out what portfolio of school programming we can offer students, given our changing population,” Ms. Dingledy said. “Not everyone who comes to this high school and enrolls is looking for that traditional comprehensive high school four-year experience.”

Looking ahead, Ms. Palmer said continuing to invest in the program is a priority. Just before the pandemic hit, the ELL program underwent a comprehensive evaluation aimed at adapting the program’s model to meet the needs of its larger population.

So far, Ms. Palmer has already begun offering professional development for teachers in and out of the ELL program. Extra support for the program from an administrative assistant was also recently inked in next year’s superintendent’s budget, but investing in staffing is only the beginning, Ms. Palmer said.

“I can’t say it’s that easy of just hiring more ESL teachers within our schools right now,” said Ms. Palmer, who is looking at dual language programs and transitional bilingual programs down the road. “The program model we have was built on when we had 70 students or less and now we have such a big percentage of students who are English learners. What should this program now look like? It probably shouldn’t look the same,” she said.

For the moment, however, larger-scale plans are on pause, as the ELL team focuses on supporting English learners through the challenges of pandemic learning.

Mr. D’Andrea agreed. “Our neediest population will be the ones that will probably be hit the hardest and we’re going to have to have to focus on our neediest students probably more than we have in the past,” he said.

And as the English learning population continues to surge, Ms. Palmer expressed determination for the program’s next chapter.

“I think Covid has brought so much to light around access, equity and opportunities for students and families,” she said. “When we come out of this, we’ll have some good visions of how to go forward.”