Special Report
English-Language Learners

Immigration Transforms Communities

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 31, 2008 6 min read
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Jim D. Rollins had been superintendent of the Springdale public schools in northwest Arkansas for almost a decade when the mostly white community began its dramatic transformation into a booming gateway for immigrant families and their non-English-speaking children.

In 1990, the district, with just under 8,000 students, had virtually no English-language learners, or ELLs. By last fall, its English-learner population alone stood at 7,000 children—roughly 40 percent of the total enrollment of 17,400 students. A thriving economy in and around Springdale over the past 15 years, driven mostly by job growth at Tyson Foods, the world’s largest poultry producer, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, had attracted thousands of immigrants from Mexico, as well as a significant number of families from the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific.

“We had to be learners ourselves, and we had to start from scratch,” says Rollins, who has been the schools chief in Springdale since 1982. “We started out by trying to train 100 or so teachers a year who would volunteer to go through language-acquisition programs in the summer, but it wasn’t enough. With the growth we were experiencing, we needed to be much more comprehensive.”

Springdale’s is the story of hundreds of school districts around the nation that have seen explosive growth in immigrant populations over the past 10 to 15 years that has brought non-English-speaking children into their classrooms.

Surging employment through the 1990s in industries such as housing construction, agribusiness, and the services sector drew immigrants—both legal and illegal—and their families to states like Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, Nevada, and North Carolina that had little recent experience with new immigrants and their social and educational needs.

That sweeping shift in demographic patterns has strained the capacity of school districts, and even state departments of education, to develop and pay for instructional programs to teach children who are still learning English. In many cases, educators in such communities have relied on a piecemeal, ad hoc approach.

Now, as a result of declining economic opportunities and heightened law-enforcement efforts around illegal immigration, demographers are seeing a slowdown in immigration rates, particularly those of undocumented immigrants. A continuation of that trend would likely affect those states and school districts that have experienced the most growth.

“I don’t think we yet know how the impact of immigration raids and other policies around immigration are playing out in terms of migratory movements,” says Michael Fix, the senior vice president and director of studies at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. “But we are definitely seeing a pattern when you look at English-language learners that shows those states that were rising like a steep ramp are now beginning to plateau.”

While the flow may be slowing, a population of immigrant families is now dispersed widely throughout the country and continues to pose challenges for states still learning how best to provide for their needs, including English-language instruction.

Immigration Patterns

A Growing Population

Nationwide enrollments of English-language learners increased by 57 percent from 1995 to 2005. Public K-12 schools educated a total of 5.1 million ELL students in the 2005-06 school year. In 20 states, the size of the ELL population has at least doubled over this period, with the greatest percentage increases in Arkansas and South Carolina. However, the numbers of English-language learners declined in nine states.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2009. Analysis of data from the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data.

The growth of the ELL population was a direct result of robust immigration through the 1990s and into the early years of the new century. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of foreign-born people living in the U.S. in 1995 was 24.5 million. By 2005, that population stood at 35.7 million. In that same decade, the English-language-learner student population nationwide grew by about 57 percent to 5.1 million students, from 3.2 million, according to data from the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, based in Washington.

As the English-language-learner population was rapidly increasing, the overall K-12 population remained essentially flat, says Fix, who is an expert on immigration patterns in the United States. “It’s that discrepancy between the two that has helped bring this issue so much to the forefront,” he says.

And certain states were the main drivers of that growth. For example, Fix said the ELL population in North Carolina grew by 350 percent between 1995 and 2005.

Joanne Marino, an English-as-a-second-language consultant for the North Carolina education department, says English-learners numbered just more than 60,000 statewide in 2002. By 2007, that number had nearly doubled, to 112,500.

“We are constantly trying to keep up with the growth, but it’s difficult to have enough teachers,” Marino says. One challenge has been creating enough university-based programs to train North Carolina teachers who wanted to become certified as English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, instructors. Twenty years ago, there were three institutions that offered such programs; now there are 14, Marino notes.

In the 310,000-student Clark County, Nev., school district, which includes Las Vegas, a surge in the English-learner population started in 2000, says Norberta M. Anderson, the director of ELL programs there. The district was already home to about 19,000 ELLs in 2000, but southern Nevada’s thriving casino and hotel industry, and a housing boom, sparked a new wave of growth that has raised the ELL student population there by roughly 8 percent every year since then, she says. Last October, the district’s ELL enrollment stood at 62,680 students, roughly 20 percent of the overall student body—and some 73 percent of ELLs in Clark County are native-born students.

Four years ago, the district started providing tuition reimbursement to faculty members who enrolled in coursework to obtain their state endorsements as ESL teachers. That, says Anderson, has been a more productive way to increase the numbers of qualified teachers than recruiting experienced teachers from other school districts and states.

“We realized we had to really make the most effort in growing our own teachers,” Anderson says.

Money Concerns

Funding has been a major challenge. The state of Nevada does not provide districts with any additional money to educate ELLs beyond what it pays for regular students, which already falls short of what most states spend per student. In 2005-06, the per-student state aid in Nevada was $7,345, compared with the national average of $9,138, according to state rankings published by the Census Bureau. Though educators in Nevada have pushed the legislature to provide targeted funds for ELL students, they have not been successful, says Anderson.

“Unfortunately, with the immigration issue being so hot nationally, funding for ELL programs has gotten lumped into that conversation,” she says.

Funding has been a challenge in other states as well.

In Arkansas, a federal grant is helping to pay for the certification of Springdale teachers in English-as-a-second-language, by weaving ongoing training for teaching non-English speakers into the daily work of teachers. Springdale also has a new program to train all 1,200 teachers in the district to work with English-learners, says Mary Bridgforth, the district’s director of ESL programs.

And though Springdale, like many other districts, has struggled to recruit ESL and bilingual-certified teachers from other cities, the longevity of its own program and the maturity of its immigrant community are starting to bear fruit. Students who had come to the district years ago with little or no English-language skills are beginning to return to work as certified ESL and bilingual teachers.

“It’s hard for us to bring in those teachers who can go to Dallas or to Houston,” says Don Love, Springdale’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “Our best source now for teachers is our own students.”

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