English-Language Learners

Newcomers Bring Change, Challenge to Region

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 03, 2005 9 min read
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Some school districts in America’s heartland are well on their way to incorporating the lessons they have learned about teaching children who speak little or no English. Other districts, often because of a lack of resources or a resistance to change, have long learning curves ahead of them.

Either way, the influx of immigrants that has shifted the demographics in border states and urban centers across the country is taking root in interior states such as Arkansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma. And while the scope of change is far less dramatic in that region, the impact on schools is nonetheless significant—and growing.

Angel Aragon, an 8th grader in West Liberty, Iowa, walks past the movie theater on his way home from school in March.

“Regions in the heartland are now getting large numbers [of immigrants] en masse,” said Lynore M. Carnuccio, a consultant on English-language learners who is based in Yukon, Okla. “They are not getting one here and one there. They are all of a sudden getting a community of immigrants or English-language learners.”

Corresponding with that skyrocketing immigration—mostly by Latinos—is a huge growth in the number of children who have limited proficiency in English.

In Nebraska, for instance, from the 1993-94 school year to the 2003-04 school year, the number of students speaking limited English grew from 3,714 to 15,586, or an increase of 320 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition.

In Arkansas during the same period, the growth was 289 percent; in Kansas, it was 269 percent; in Missouri, 212 percent; in Iowa, 185 percent; and in Oklahoma, 25 percent.

In some towns, Latino children outnumber non-Hispanic whites in schools. That’s the case in Dodge City and Garden City, Kan., and in Lexington, Neb.

And while researchers have documented the changing demographics in the middle of the country—regions traditionally dominated by homogeneous, white populations—less is known about how well schools in several states there are serving students who speak little or no English. Experts in the field say there’s very little research featuring the education of such students in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma—the states examined for this three-part Education Week series.

“The focus has been on the states with the big immigrant populations,” said Randy Capps, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington who studies English-language learners. “Researchers are just beginning to do work in new-growth states—Midwestern and Far Western states.”

Lessons Learned

Still, a picture of how schools receive children who speak little or no English can be pieced together through the stories of education consultants and university professors who travel to remote corners of the region to help school administrators and teachers set up programs for newcomers.

“The first stage is shock—we don’t know what we should be doing,” said Kathy Escamilla, an associate professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who has conducted workshops for teachers on English-language learners in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska.

Educators then move on to realize it would be good to hire a few bilingual staff members and adopt a curriculum for English-language-learners, she said. Eventually, the schools may set up a comprehensive program for second-language learners.

More often than not, districts establish English-as-a-second-language programs that use English-only methods, rather than programs that support students in their native languages. One of the reasons for that policy direction is that bilingual teachers are particularly scarce in the middle region of the country.

“One of the big ‘ahas’ for them is that it’s not easy to learn a second language,” Ms. Escamilla said of many educators. “People in the schools see the kids are trying, but learning a language is a lot more complex than they thought.”

School people also are sometimes misguided in thinking that the few families in their communities who don’t speak English will soon move on, and that the schools won’t see more newcomers, said Ms. Escamilla. That perception usually changes after the school district receives about 20 English-language learners, she said.

And in general, when it comes to providing adequate instruction for English-language learners, schools in the heartland are behind schools in states that have traditionally received many immigrants, said Marcela Parra, the program coordinator for national origin for the Midwest Equity Assistance Center. Financed totally by the U.S. Department of Education, the center is housed at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

At the request of the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, Ms. Parra evaluates school districts’ services for English-language learners in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.

She also helps school districts in those states set up ESL or bilingual programs. Sometimes they voluntarily ask for an evaluation.

“The first thing is they don’t want to be breaking any laws,” she said of school districts. “The second thing is they want to make sure they are educating the students properly.”

In fact, Ms. Parra said, it’s not unusual for districts to unknowingly violate civil rights laws. For instance, she said, a school district will often use a teacher’s aide to instruct English-language learners. “That is not complying with the law. The students aren’t receiving an equitable or meaningful education,” she said.

Ms. Parra, a native of Mexico who has been a teacher in Arizona, said it’s also common in heartland states for districts to give special help to English-language learners in elementary or middle school but not high school.

It’s also not unusual, she said, for districts in the heartland to provide language help only for those students with the lowest English-proficiency levels; others who have learned “social” English but may lack academic proficiency in the language spend their school days in mainstream classes.

To comply with federal civil rights law, Ms. Parra said, districts must carefully document why they are not providing special help to a student with limited proficiency in English or why they have stopped doing so.

When asked if school districts aren’t familiar with such provisions of the law or simply ignore them, she said, “A lot of times, it’s a little bit of both.”

Student Carlos Vargas stands inside Ryan Schenk's classroom at Hennessey Elementary, Okla., on April 14.

And federal officials can step in when necessary, as the 1,200-student Green Forest, Ark., school district found out a few years ago.

Federal Intervention

In the 2000-01 school year, a parent filed a complaint with the office for civil rights, charging that the district provided ESL services for only 70 of its 170 English-language learners. The district didn’t give any special help to English-language learners at the high school level, according to a copy of the complaint, provided by the OCR in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Larry Bennett, the superintendent of the Green Forest schools, took that post three years ago, after the complaint had been filed.

“I inherited this OCR thing,” he said. “This came about four years ago, when a small, sleepy town in northwest Arkansas was suddenly exposed to Hispanics.” The district had unexpectedly received an influx of Latino children whose parents had come to town to work in a poultry plant, he said.

The district has since dramatically stepped up its services for such children, but serving them well at the high school level continues to be the district’s biggest challenge, Mr. Bennett said. Helping high school students is complicated by the need to make sure they get the necessary credits to graduate, he noted. “The problem is finding bilingual teachers, finding bilingual aides, and providing all the opportunity that you want to.”

At the time of the complaint, the district had just one teacher with an academic endorsement to teach ESL. It now has 19. This spring, after Mr. Bennett submits a plan to the OCR for how the district will continue to evaluate its ESL program, he expects that the federal office will consider the matter resolved.

Fighting Words

English-language learners interviewed as part of this series gave mixed reviews on how well their schools have received them.

When two Mexican boys, Nestor and Felipe, at Hornersville Middle School in the Senath-Hornersville district in southeastern Missouri, were asked what they thought of their school, Nestor, an 8th grader, said in Spanish that it was racista, and Felipe, a 7th grader, added, “No quieren Méxicanos.” (“They don’t want Mexicans.”)

Felipe complained about his recent suspension for fighting with a non-Mexican boy. According to Felipe, the fight sprang from a previous incident in which Felipe gave a third boy a black eye for calling him “Alberto” when the boy knew his name was Felipe.

ESL teacher Jesse De Leon, who is Mexican-American, was present when Felipe and Nestor expressed their feelings about the school.

Mr. De Leon said later that while Mexican students in the school are sometimes called derogatory names by other students and must deal with racist attitudes of some whites in the community, he believes that school authorities have been fair in meting out punishment to students who fight on school grounds.

And though most of the 10 students of Mexican origin interviewed at Hennessey High School in Hennessey, Okla., for this series said that they were treated well and teachers cared about their academic success, two complained.

“The only problem we have,” said Anais Gonzalez, a 17-year-old senior and a native of Mexico, “is we can’t speak Spanish in class.” She said two of her seven teachers say, “Don’t speak Spanish.”

“That’s our language, you know,” she said with indignation. “If they go to Mexico, [Mexicans are] not going to be saying, ‘You can’t speak English.’ ”

Nebraska Findings

One of the few researchers studying how schools serve English-language learners in heartland states is Lourdes Gouveia, a professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

She and Mary Ann Powell, an associate professor of sociology at the university, released in March a study profiling the educational achievement and integration of Nebraska’s Latinos, who make up most of the state’s newcomers.

They found, for example, that few Latino children in Nebraska participated in preschool programs. And in the 2003-04 school year, while 9.3 percent of students in Nebraska public schools were Latino, only 1.1 percent of the certified-staff members were also Latino.

Ms. Gouveia said her research shows a connection between how a community welcomes immigrants and how well they do academically.

“The schools are trying,” she said. “They make a tremendous effort to really learn and transform curriculum and practices to accommodate for this diversity. One of the major problems we encounter is that if we see a large number of newcomers [in a community], the resources are insufficient to cope well.”

She explained that Nebraska’s school aid formula tends to penalize districts with the lowest tax base, which also tend to be the districts with the highest numbers of English-language learners. When there is competition for resources, ethnocentric and racist sentiments can surface, she added.

“You have white flight sometimes going on,” she said, noting that Anglos move out of the town thinking that Hispanics are turning the schools “bad,” when really the funding for schools to cope with newcomers is insufficient. “That only exacerbates the problem of funding in our schools.”


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