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During a presentation last week, Virginia Beach school officials said more than 2,000 students in Virginia Beach schools receive English as a Second Language services.

It's about 300 more students than last year. It costs the city approximately $1 million.

School Board member Victoria Manning said that cost is getting too high.

“Continuing to educate South Americans is not sustainable,” Manning wrote on her Facebook page after a briefing to the school board on ESL programs.

Virginia Beach provides ESL services for all students who need to build their English language skills, but a large number of ESL students are Central American, according to school staff.

The need for ESL services, and the cost, have increased over the years. However, community leaders say it's money well spent.

“I believe our core work is to educate children—all children,” Virginia Beach Superintendent Aaron Spence wrote in a statement. “Teaching and caring for our students, whoever they are, is the most sustainable part of who we are.” 

Local funding for Virginia Beach’s ESL program totaled $941,725. Next year is projected to be $1,106,637. 

This is less than 1% of Virginia Beach’s school budget – which is more than $900 million and proposed to exceed $1 billion in the coming year.

Manning did not respond to several requests for comment from WHRO. 

On her website, she wrote:

"I love all people, no matter where they are from. I come from a family of immigrants who came to this great country fleeing religious persecution, even having to become indentured servants, and my grandmother was Native American. ... I believe it is our duty to provide an appropriate education to ALL students who reside in our city and I do fully support our ESL program and our wonderful ESL teachers. There is a teacher shortage and without teachers and proper funding, the current path is unsustainable."

Since then, Gov. Glenn Youngkin's administration removed Manning from a working group on lab schools.

“We wholly condemn Mrs. Manning’s comments," Virginia's Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera said in a statement to WAVY. "They are completely unacceptable and are in absolute opposition to the Youngkin administration’s commitment to educate and prepare every child in the Commonwealth for success in life. Victoria Manning will no longer participate in our working group."

What ESL does

Casey Conger, the principal of W. T. Cooke Elementary, said the numbers of students who need ESL services is increasing. 

“Providing them the support does not take away from any other supports provided to anyone else,” she said. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

About 14% of Cooke students receive ESL services. About a quarter of the students’ families do not speak English as their first language, Conger said.

“We… have NATO families who are here supporting our military,” she said. “We have students of Russian descent; we have Afghan students.”

According to recent data from the school system, about half of ESL recipients in Virginia Beach speak Spanish at home. The next most common languages are Tagalog and Vietnamese. 

Some students at Conger's school can speak English but can’t write. The program’s purpose is to prepare students to be “college and career ready,” according to the school system.

“I don't believe for one second that it is any sort of drain on our tax money,” Conger said. “I actually think it's the most important aspect.”

NOTE: Virginia Beach Public Schools is a member of HRETA, which holds WHRO’s license.