Schools Struggle With Parents Over English Language Learning


Parents in California are worried that if they register their children for school and they are classified as an "English learner", their children will be labeled as such and, possibly, will miss out on opportunities that are given to native English-speaking students — driving some parents to outright lie to avoid that outcome.

When they are asked a standard four-question survey to establish what language is spoken in their homes, some say they speak only English, according to Amy Taxin reporting for the Associated Press. Educators in California cannot be sure how many parents lie on the home language survey. Teachers know that if they do not identify students who need assistance in learning English, those students could have trouble keeping up with the learning process, putting schools in violation of laws that guarantee access to education.

In 2016, California plans to release a new English language proficiency test and is taking into consideration that the home language survey may need to be changed. Since the survey was developed in 1980 and the state's population and immigration patterns have changed dramatically since then, a change is probably overdue. Census data shows that almost 44% of Californians, age 5 years and older, speak a language other than English. The most common language is Spanish and 57% of that group also speak English proficiently.

Children in California and most other states are screened through the home language survey and are given an English proficiency test if a child's family speaks another language at home. In 2012, over 200,000 incoming kindergarten students were given the test and only 9% were considered proficient.

Some parents think that a one-day test, which may be too onerous, should not be used to determine the educational path a child will take. Along with a parental fear that their children will not be able to enter advanced courses in middle and high school because of additional language requirements, there is state data showing that English learners do not perform as well on the California High School Exit Exam. Interestingly, students who were initially English learners but were reclassified achieved better scores than their English-only fellow students.

New York City has city and state education officials teaming up to help English language learners close the gap on a number of academic measures, writes Ben Chapman of the New York Daily News. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and state Education Commissioner John King signed a memo this week for both agencies to work together on a $13 million plan targeting more than 145,000 students who are learning English for the first time in NYC classrooms.

"This is a bold step forward towards ensuring educational equity, access and opportunity for all of our English-language learner students," Fariña said.

The program will include additional resources, assuring proper certifications for all teachers of English language learning students, and creating programs to keep parents participating in the education of their children.

King said the state would hold the city accountable to meeting its new goals. "This commitment is critical as we move forward to improve instruction and programming for English-language learners," King said. "The targets and the new regulations give the city a clear path to provide better support."

Denver, too, has been in the business of serving its ELL students since 1980. A federal court order required Denver Public School district to provide "meaningful and appropriate" services to children in need of language-acquisition assistance, as a result of a lawsuit brought by a group of Latino educators. Eric Gorski, reporting for The Denver Post, writes that in a 2012 update to the order, a large number of new demands had been placed on charter schools, a burgeoning pillar of the school reform push by DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Carol Mehesy, director of quality assurance and accountability for DPS's Office of School Reform and Innovation, said:

"To be honest, it has gone more smoothly than we expected from the sense there is a deep commitment to get it right for English-language learners," she said. "There was never any kind of philosophical difference."

Even though the requirements are many and include complicated program reviews, the district's charter schools are in agreement that standards for the ELL program must be met.

And in Marion, Ohio, the Hispanic population is expected to grow by 273% from 2010 to 2060, according to the Census Bureau, the National Historic Geographic Information System and Proximity One. Research shows that a second-language learner takes an average of two years to develop basic person-to-person communication, and five to seven years — or longer — to develop proficiency equal to a native speaker's, writes The Marion Star‘s John Jarvis.

"In Ohio we've seen an increase in the ESL population, but in Marion we really haven't seen much as far as the ESL population in the schools," said Jessica Burchett, the district's English as a second language coordinator, adding that a general misconception exists that all Latinos struggle with English. "We do have Latinos that are fluent in English."

Burchett, whose program serves 60 students in Marion City Schools, explained that the other part of the process is to assist her ESL students in adapting to a social lifestyle that often is very different from what has been instilled by their parents — and doing so, as Burchett as prioritized, while ensuring that students do not lose their Spanish language.

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