Howard School ESOL teachers Ellen Smith, left, and Andrea Dyer are photographed in the Jefferson Heights Park on Friday, July 29, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The two teachers took a summer trip to Guatemala to better understand where many of their students came from.

Ellen Smith put a picture of a plane ticket on the board at the front of her classroom at The Howard School this spring and asked her students what it was.

All the kids in her class are learning English. Many are new to the country and have never traveled on an airplane.

Practicing their English, students started slowly reading aloud: "Departure from Chattanooga." Smith said someone then read her name aloud from the ticket, and another said, "Arrival in Guatemala."

"You're going to our home!" the students exclaimed.

Smith and Andrea Dyer both teach in Howard's English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. They decided to buy tickets to travel to Guatemala this summer to experience the homeland of more than 90 percent of their students.

"I wanted to see where my students lived," Dyer said. "I wanted to see their former schools and their houses and to stay with their families."

So for nine days at the end of June the two teachers did just that.

Howard educates the largest share of students learning English in Hamilton County. In the coming year it's estimated that about 200 students — nearly 30 percent of the student body — will be enrolled in the ESOL program. This is a major uptick from 2012-13, when only a dozen Howard students were considered to be English language learners, according to the state.

This year five teachers will work full time teaching English to Howard students, many of whom are relatively new to the country and who arrived without their immediate families.

The English classes last about 80 minutes a day. The students spend the rest of the school day in regular classrooms with teachers who speak little to no Spanish.

"It can be really hard for [the Spanish-speaking students] to understand and to learn in these classes," Dyer said. "Some of the students don't have education past fifth grade and are expected to learn algebra."

Both teachers dream of a Newcomers Academy at Howard that would help English language learners acclimate to the language and school for about a year before entering a mainstream classroom.

Zac Brown, the former Howard principal recently named assistant superintendent of operations for Hamilton County Schools, said the district is looking into starting such an academy.

"We are looking to see what's good for kids and what can help them best," he said.

Brown was principal when Howard started its ESOL program in fall 2014. He said he's seen how difficult it can be for schools to equip non-English speaking students to succeed in the classroom, especially when they arrive as 16- and 17-year-olds with little education.

He said the influx of students learning English didn't cause social problems at the school but did place an extra strain on teachers.

A large proportion of Howard's students live in poverty and struggle with academics, Brown said. Add kids who are far behind in school and don't speak English and it makes things even more difficult, he said.

"It was a huge shift at our school," he said. "But no matter what, if a student walks in our building it's our job to educate them."

Talking on Friday, Smith and Dyer said they are constantly amazed by the work ethic and resilience of their students, and are proud of them for learning English and fighting to reach graduation.

They said being in Guatemala is helping them better understand the youngsters who will fill their classrooms this year.

"Kids tell us about not having any opportunities at home in Guatemala, but seeing it, I realized how there really isn't anything there for them," Smith said. "And that's often dangerous."

Smith said many of her students made the journey to America in hopes of opportunity — the chance to become educated and get a job. Some are looking to escape the dangers of drug cartels and gangs.

Smith said she was struck by how hard it is for the parents and grandparents to be away from their kids, but how they want what's best for them.

"There was a grown man that just bawled because he missed his daughter, who is in my class," Smith said.

Dyer added that staying with the students' families was a way to show how much she and Smith care for their kids and are helping to take care of them.

At school, Dyer said, her role extends beyond teaching English, as she and the other ESOL teachers also serve as advocates and social support for the students.

"Our classrooms are a safe place," she said. "It's kind of their home."

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.