October 3, 2008

English Language Program Growing 20 Percent a Year

By Barbara Hollingsworth

By Barbara Hollingsworth


The stage is being set for changes in programs aimed at reaching students learning to speak English as their second language in Topeka Unified School District 501.

School board members Thursday night got an overview of the challenges of working with students who often struggle academically while learning to speak English. When the board meets later this month, members will look for new ways of approaching the students, such as with a dual language school.

The goal of the English Language Learner (ELL) program extends beyond helping students learn English, said Steve Henry, general director of research, evaluation and assessment.

"It's meant to ensure that our ELL students have full access to the curriculum they experience at schools," he said. "Without that English language proficiency they're just not going to have that."

School board members have made ELL students a focus over the past year. They have met with officials from other school districts in the state to learn about their ELL programs, and Henry on Thursday presented the first part of a program evaluation report.

The school district's ELL population has exploded in recent years, growing by as much as 20 percent a year.

ELL enrollment increased less than 4 percent this year to 802 students. That number reflects only children enrolled in ELL programs. Some families opt out of the program so their children can stay in their neighborhood school. Also, students test out every year after gaining skills -- 66 during the 2006-07 school year.

Statewide, the languages spoken by ELL students vary widely. USD 501's ELL students, however, have a lot in common, Henry said. Ninety-nine percent speak Spanish and have family roots in Mexico. By far, most enter the program for the first time as kindergartners.

But most have been in the country long before kindergarten -- often born in Topeka yet not learning English until school, Henry said. The report presented Thursday said there most likely are 150 4- year-olds each year in Topeka who don't speak English.

Only a handful of those 4-year-olds are served in district preschools. Most lack a "quality structured preschool experience." Many of the families likely would struggle financially to access high-quality preschool programs. Throughout the district, about 97 percent of ELL students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.

"So that means they're not just showing up here when they're 5," said board member Patrick Woods, who has been pushing for expanded early-childhood programs. "They are somewhere in our community, but they are not being successfully served."

One challenge as the district moves ahead is convincing classroom teachers to complete training in teaching ELL students. Having more teachers with the endorsements also would allow the district to receive additional state funding for the time those teachers spend with ELL students.

"While our formally designated ELL staff is well trained, have appropriate certifications and receive regular high quality staff development, regular classroom teachers are not well-equipped to meet the needs of our ELL students," the report said.

Programs have worked to help more classroom teachers receive ELL endorsements. However, many teachers have stopped short of finishing the endorsement out of fear that they will be moved from their classroom teaching job to an ELL post. District officials say the fears are unfounded.

Henry said the district wants to talk to Washburn University about offering an ELL endorsement since many of the district's teachers come from Washburn. Also, he said talks need to happen with universities throughout the state to push for making the ELL endorsement part of teacher education programs.

Glennie Buckley, general director for K-12 literacy, said an upcoming effort to help teachers at Scott Magnet, Chase Middle and Lundgren Elementary schools complete ELL endorsements through classes with The University of Kansas has exceeded expectations.

Barbara Hollingsworth can be reached at (785) 295-1285

or barbara.hollingsworth


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