Alachua County Schools see ESOL population bounce back from the pandemic

A Westwood Middle School ESOL student writes answers to an exercise on the board. (Joaquin Cabrera/WUFT News)

Before Kevin Kelsey took the lead of the English for Speakers of Other Languages department at Gainesville High School, the students were mostly the children of university professors or visiting scholars.

In four years, however, he said the demographics have changed.

“Now … most of our kids are children of or parts of families that are seeking asylum, or they are refugees, or they are undocumented,” Kelsey said.

In 2022, the number of ESOL students in Alachua County increased by more than 100 from the previous year, when it dropped during the pandemic. 2022 also saw the largest ESOL student population in the last five years, but only by eight students, according to Alachua County Public Schools records.

In Gainesville High School, the only high school that offers the ESOL program in the county, 80% of the ESOL students speak Spanish as their first language. The program includes students from 24 countries, with Venezuela leading the chart with 27 students.

A similar dynamic is found at Westwood Middle School. It’s the only middle school that offers the ESOL program in the county, and Venezuelan and Colombian students make up the majority in the program, according to Stacie Oyenarte, the only ESOL teacher at the school.

Oyenarte had 73 students in her ESOL classes, but due to a lack of space, she moved the 12 most advanced students out of the ESOL classes.

Both Oyenarte and Kelsey argue the graduation requirements for ESOL students are too demanding, citing that ESOL students must pass standardized tests that are written in a language they don’t completely understand. Oyenarte said she left Gainesville High School, in part, because she didn’t like the pressure she saw her students experience to graduate and the expectations in terms of graduation rates placed on her as a teacher.
Sharon Zhang, a University of Florida student, reviews a writing exercise with Westwood Middle School ESOL students. Zhang is a teaching assistant for Stacie Oneyarte in the ESOL class. (Joaquin Cabrera/WUFT News)

“I have seen students in our program who have well above a 2.0 GPA and will earn all of their credits,” Kelsey said. “And the only thing that’s holding them back from getting their diploma is passing an English test.”

Standardized testing was waived in Florida during the 2019-2020 school year due to the pandemic. In that year, English learners were not required to pass tests presented only in English to graduate, and the graduation rates for English learners increased from 75% to 85.7%, according to an analysis of Florida Department of Education data by Rosa Castro Feinberg, a former professor at Florida International University.

Despite the challenges, Kelsey said that he believes he has one of the most meaningful jobs in the world.

“I get really excited when I wake up in the morning because I think that I get to hang out with the coolest kids in the school,” Kelsey said.

About Joaquin Cabrera Petrone

Joaquin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing

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