By Jessica Monte
Olga sits across a wooden farm table from me. She has just finished a one-hour class on subject-verb agreement, an advanced English language concept she is studying in her GED class, a program hosted by the Loudoun Literacy Council with Fabbioli Wine Cellars in Leesburg.
“I like learning English to speak with other people,” Olga tells me, “but, it is difficult.”
Olga moved to the United States seven years ago, attended one year of high school, and then dropped out. She subsequently found employment at Fabbioli Wine Cellars, which has hosted English classes for more than two years and has recently launched a GED program.
“I want my team to improve their lives and jobs,” Doug Fabbioli, co-owner of Fabbioli Wine Cellars said. “When some of them started helping in the tasting room on the weekends, we realized how important their language skills were to the job. So, we specifically started classes so the team would work better together.”
A 2014 study “The Bilingual Advantage: Language, Literacy, and the U.S. Labor Market,” indicates that employers prefer bilingual applicants. Karen Feldman, the director of the Adult Literacy Program for the Loudoun Literacy Council agrees. “Being able to learn or be bilingual or trilingual is such a leg up in so many ways.”
But here in Loudoun County, where the Loudoun Literacy Council serves nearly 500 adults annually, a staggering 85 percent of ELs, or English Learners, enrolled in Loudoun County Public Schools test below basic proficiency in reading.
Many ELs, or multilingual students, graduate from Loudoun County Public Schools at a higher rate than other multilingual students across the country. NPR’s 5 Million Voices reported that 37 percent of ELs attending U.S. schools do not make it to graduation; however, in Loudoun County, that number drops to just over 20 percent. Out of 579 EL students in 2020, 113 Loudoun EL students dropped out to enter the workforce without graduating.
Celia Garcia, who is a team lead at Fabbioli Wine Cellars, considers the English language a crucial skill for work and life in the United States. “We have to learn English because without English, you cannot do much.”
Rosa Roman, another longtime employee at Fabbioli Wine Cellars agrees with Garcia. “I need English for my son’s school and the doctor.” Roman is proud that her son is bilingual and performs well at school, however, an ongoing medical problem brings him and Roman to the doctors’ office each month.
According to a 2018 report from Data USA, roughly 21,000 full-time employees in Loudoun County who identify as multiracial or other, live below the ALICE threshold for poverty. Over 14,000 Loudoun residents who identify as Hispanic live below the federal poverty line. However, opportunities within Loudoun County exist to engage bilingual students and residents in its currently thriving technical marketplace. Many are employed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Orbital ATK, Raytheon, and America Online and a number of households earn a median income of $139,915, the highest in the nation. All of these companies are currently seeking bilingual and multilingual employees.
Of Loudoun’s 400,000 residents, 24 percent are foreign-born. Though the United States has a history of promoting an English-only culture, Forbes named a bilingual state, Utah, as a Best State for Business in 2013. Utah’s bilingual economy expands internationally each year. New American Economy published a report in 2017 that the Utah State Board of Education supports dual-language educational programs so that students “are better prepared for the global community and job markets where a second language is an asset.”
Currently, Loudoun County Public Schools and the Virginia Department of Education offer The Seal of Biliteracy, an award to recognize students who attain proficiency in English and one or more other world languages by graduation. However, though the move to offer the Seal of Biliteracy is empowering for EL students, Loudoun County Public Schools does not offer dual-language enrollment. In the meantime, the Loudoun Literacy Council and dedicated employers like Doug Fabbioli are stepping in to help students, like Olga, find different pathways to high school completion. For other multilingual Loudoun residents, the outcome is less clear.