Rural N.C. To Get Aid for LEP-Student Influx

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A decade ago, the only immigrants in Lee County, N.C., aside from some transplanted Northerners, were a small group of mi grant farm workers and their families. With only a couple dozen language-minority students--mostly Hispanic children whose parents moved with the cycle of harvests throughout the South--the 8,000-student school system in the state's smallest county gave little thought to providing special language services.

But an explosion in the population of non-English-speaking residents over the past few years--lured to the rural community in central North Carolina by the strong economy and an abundance of low-skill jobs--has made such services essential in the district's 13 schools.

School officials in Lee County, and others throughout North Carolina, have had to scrape together resources to serve the ballooning ranks of children with limited English proficiency. Without state aid for such programs, they have squeezed money from local budgets to hire translators and buy instructional materials, borrowed teachers from foreign-language classes, and tapped federal bilingual education programs to pay for professional development.

Finally, however, help has arrived. After four years of pleas from the state school board for assistance, lawmakers answered in the state's fiscal 1999 budget approved last fall. It lays out statewide standards for serving LEP students and provides $5 million to help districts meet them.

"We've been having to make hard choices about how to [allocate] money," said Linda S. Higgins, the Lee County district's director of special programs and projects. "It's often a question of what do we give up if we can't get any other funding."

Population Boom

Though non-English-speaking immigrants have been relocating to rural communities elsewhere in the country since the early 1990s, many district and state officials in North Carolina were caught off guard by the rapid influx of newcomers there. In the Lee County schools this year, more than 1,100 students speak one of 18 languages other than English and have completed varying levels of formal education. Approximately 28,000 LEP students were enrolled in schools throughout the state in the 1997-98 school year--nearly double the number just three years earlier. Together, they represent up to 200 different languages.

The state's urban centers, such as Raleigh and Charlotte, have long served students with varying degrees of English proficiency. But the booming food-processing and furniture-manufacturing industries that have spread the state's prosperity to outlying areas have enabled workers from Central America, Asia, and the West Indies to gain residency and lay down roots in rural districts. The state's tiniest school systems, with fewer local resources, are the least prepared to address the evolving patchwork of academic needs, according to Frances S. Hoch, the director of English-as-a-second-language services for the state education department.

Many lawmakers are just starting to understand the pattern of change in the state's 2,000 schools.

"I was absolutely amazed at the problem we found," said Sen. Howard N. Lee. The Chapel Hill Democrat visited schools throughout the state during the past year to assess academic needs. "I visited several schools where students were isolated in the classroom because they couldn't speak English, and no one in the school spoke their language. There was one girl whose language couldn't even be identified," he said.

Other states, such as Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, and Iowa, have also felt the burden of unexpected waves of immigration, especially in their rural communities. ("Immigration's Final Frontier," Feb. 23, 1994.)

Georgia officials, for instance, have seen the number of students in state-financed second-language programs grow by 180 percent, to more than 20,000, during the past six years. The greatest proportion of such students is in Georgia's most sparsely populated districts, according to state officials.

The phenomenon has emerged over the past five years or so, according to Jeffrey S. Passel, a demographer for the Urban Institute in Washington.

"This trend did not appear on the 1990 census," he said. A greater dispersal of immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, is occurring "in rural areas, small towns, and small cities," he said, concentrated around the food-processing and poultry industries and agriculture.

'Piddling Amount'

Sen. Lee led North Carolina's legislative efforts to target state money to the most affected districts. But the money comes late for many districts, Mr. Lee said, and is a "piddling amount" compared with the $30 million to $60 million some educators and legislators say is needed.

Because most jurisdictions are suffering growing pains, the need for help has few detractors, according to John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit research center in Raleigh.

Mr. Lee hopes legislators will double funding next year. "We need to respond to the needs of these children," Mr. Lee said. Inevitably, he predicted, "we are going to face a legal directive to do so."

The state's belated action headed off a lawsuit by the North Carolina Education and Law Center in Raleigh, which advocates improved educational opportunities for at-risk students. The organization argued that the state had not fulfilled its duty to provide a high-quality education to students who speak little or no English, said Greg Malhoit, its director. Mr. Malhoit, who contends that the state's response is still inadequate, expects to refile the lawsuit in the coming months.

"There has been substantial improvement in the setting of guidelines and expectations for schools" in serving LEP students, he said. "The problem is that school systems don't have adequate resources to meet the mandate."

Vol. 18, Issue 20, Pages 9, 14

Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as Rural N.C. To Get Aid for LEP-Student Influx
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