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Non-English-speaking students face uphill battle

by Amy Kingsley

Apartment 424-F, which sits on the end of a long block of unadorned units, resembles its neighbors in all ways but one: The cheery window sign that reads “Glen Haven Tutorial Center.”

Next to the sign stacks of books fill the windowsill. But beyond the sunlight spilling through the glass, the unit is dark.

Students and teachers at the Glen Haven Tutorial Center – a program run by the Center for New North Carolinians – used the first week of August for a short vacation before the start of the school year. During almost all of the other weeks of the year, several students whose families reside in or around this complex gather in the apartment to hone their English skills.

The families may come from Africa, Asia or Latin America, but the common denominator among the students at Glen Haven is that they are native speakers of languages other than English.

Their ranks are growing in Guilford County Schools. And based on the preliminary results of Guilford County’s adequate yearly progress report, they are struggling.

Only 16 percent of limited English proficient sophomores in Guilford County passed the reading requirement on end-of-course tests. That is the lowest passing rate among all subgroups in the school district. Younger English-language learners fared better, with 60 percent of the limited English proficient students in grades three through eight passing the required reading test.

The results show some improvement since 2003, the first year schools across the country measured adequate yearly progress. A scant 11 percent of tenth-grade students classified as limited English proficient passed reading tests that year. Forty-five percent of their cohorts in elementary and middle school passed the reading test in 2003.

Limited English-proficient students perform better on the math portion of the test, but their passing rates still tend to lag behind those of their English-fluent peers. The reasons for their poor performance are many, according to professional educators, and range from flaws with testing to educational inadequacies in their home countries.

“Many of our children arrive to us with interrupted education or no formal education and we must ‘catch’ them up,” wrote Mayra Hayes, the English-as-a-Second-Language director for Guilford County Schools, in an e-mail. “The state has mandated end-of-grade testing within two years of arrival regardless of their proficiency in English. It takes up to three years to develop their basic interpersonal communicative skills and up to seven years is required to catch up to native speakers in academic aspects of the second language.”

Although it takes many years for most students to become fluent in a second language, federal guidelines mandate the limited English-proficient students must take end-of-grade tests by their second year in school. Some of these students are allowed to use dictionaries during testing.

Students with limited English proficiency pose a particular challenge for educators charged with both improving their language skills and making sure they learn the same content as their English-speaking peers.

In Guilford County limited English proficient students spend the majority of their time in regular classrooms where instruction is in English. They may spend 30 to 60 minutes a day in English-as-a-Second Language, or ESL, classes. The county has secured federal money for extended day camps and summer school for students who are non-native speakers.

The population of limited English proficient students tested under No Child Left Behind in Guilford County has grown 74 percent in the past three years, from 1,336 in 2002-2003 to 2,319 in 2005-2006. The school district has a total of 8,611 identified ESL students, Hayes wrote.

“We’ve had ESL going back to the late seventies,” said Fran Hoch, the ESL curriculum chief at the NC Department of Public Instruction. “But over the last eight or nine years we’ve seen an exploding population.”

Last October a statewide headcount of ESL students found 83,000. The skyrocketing number of students has outpaced the supply of ESL teachers, she said.

“The issue of are there sufficient ESL teachers is probably one that will never go away,” Hoch said.

Guilford County has increased the number of ESL teachers in the district from 90 in 2003 to 114 for 2006. In addition to teachers, the school district employs 15 bilingual interpreters and 10 support staff members. Support staff can help mitigate the problem of overextension among ESL teachers.

“The ESL teacher has a very difficult time in the classroom because they are called upon to do so much,” said Jane Girardi, a professor in the adult education office at Greensboro College. “They often have to translate for parents, be a liaison between the school and the Hispanic community and help other teachers who don’t know Spanish.”

The NC Department of Public Instruction leaves most decisions about ESL education to local districts, Hoch said. The state agency has hosted several seminars this summer on a new program called “sheltered instruction observation protocol.” It is a teaching model for regular classroom instructors that incorporates language acquisition skills with course content.

Dual language immersion – where English and Spanish speakers are combined in classes where instruction is provided in both languages – has proven the most successful model for second language learners, Hoch said. North Carolina has 15 such programs, including one in Winston-Salem at Ashley Elementary. The oldest, at Collinswood Language Academy in Charlotte, boasts reading exam passing rates of 88 percent among its limited English proficient students.

In Guilford County several non-profit groups like Centro de Accion Latino, the Montagnard-Dega Association and the Center for New North Carolinians have tutoring programs to augment instruction in the public schools. Hayes said students in Guilford County Schools are making significant gains in language that aren’t reflected by adequate yearly progress results.

“Learning another language is hard work,” Girardi said. “Think of how we learn our first language. We listen to others speak it for years before we are able to speak it ourselves.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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