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THE HARTFORD COURANT
Pressure To Learn Language Up In State
By JIM FARRELL, Courant Staff Writer
April 26, 2004
MANCHESTER -- Carlos and Adelaida are from Puerto Rico, Pooja and Nafis from India, Lina from Colombia and Loan from Vietnam.
Their lives have intersected in Room 135 at Manchester High School, where they meet regularly to improve their command of English.
"I think they're some of the best kids in our school," said Monica Giglio, who is director of the district's English Language Learner program and teaches three Language Learner classes at the high school. "They want to learn as much as they can."
According to state officials, more than 22,500 students in Connecticut public schools qualify as English Language Learners and thus receive special instruction. They represent about 3 percent of the state's total public school enrollment and collectively speak more than 145 languages and dialects.
About 60 percent of the state's Language Learner students speak Spanish as their primary language.
During the past few years, Language Learner students have risen in number in the state and at the same time have come under increased scrutiny because of the No Child Left Behind Act.
"We've always had very high standards in Connecticut," said Ana Maria Olezza, director of the bilingual/bicultural department for the Hartford public schools. "But before [No Child Left Behind], the consequences were not so dire, so dramatic."
About 4,200 of Hartford's 22,000 public school students are English Language Learners. Their performance on standardized tests - often taken just months after they move to Connecticut - can determine whether a school will receive sanctions from the federal government, such as allowing students to get individual tutoring or to transfer to other schools.
Language Learner students present particular challenges because they enroll throughout the year, at every grade level, and often speak a language that even their instructors don't understand.
"You use a lot of hand signals," said Giglio, who speaks what she considers intermediate-level Spanish but no other world languages.
She said that social and emotional support are critical to the language acquisition process.
"If they are stressed and uncomfortable and terrified, they'll shut down," Giglio said.
Carlos Laureano, a 19-year-old senior who moved to Manchester from Puerto Rico two years ago, said he was standing by himself at his locker on his first day when another Spanish-speaking student introduced herself and offered to help him around.
"She helped me in everything - my lunch, my classes," said Laureano, who added that he now tries to be sensitive and helpful to more recent newcomers.
"Sometimes people think that people who speak Spanish come to America only to get the benefits," he said. "That's not right. I don't think that's true. I give my benefits to others."
Laureano said he attended English classes while in Puerto Rican schools but didn't learn a lot.
"Just basic words," he said. "I was thinking I would never be in the United States."
Typically, when students register in a district, they are questioned about their language background and tested if needed.
For example, new students whose primary language is not English might be asked to listen to a story recorded by an English-speaking narrator. The student is then asked to retell it in English. The response is transcribed and then evaluated - much like an essay test would be - to determine whether they qualify for Language Learner services.
If a school has 20 or more Language Learner students speaking the same non-English language, that school must offer a bilingual education program the following year.
Bilingual education refers to the use of two languages as tools in classroom instruction. Advocates say the approach allows students to learn English while continuing to master academic content through native language support.
In schools that do not offer a bilingual program, instruction is done primarily in English using an array of teachers, paraprofessionals, tutors and volunteers.
Endless studies have been done evaluating the relative effectiveness of each approach, but there is little agreement about the best instructional strategy.
Whatever the framework, resourcefulness is a crucial trait for both students and instructors.
In addition to hand signals, Giglio often uses picture books or props to communicate with students who speak Hindi or Arabic, Korean or Chinese.
Most students, she said, arrive in Manchester with at least a basic familiarity with English and she tries to build on that.
Giglio says she encourages her students to learn from each other.
Pooja Modi, a 13-year-old freshman, moved to Manchester from India, where she spoke Hindi and Gujarati. Nafis Anwar, an 18-year-old junior, speaks the former but not the latter. He and Pooja sometimes hang out to chat - sometimes in Hindi, sometimes in English - in Room 135 when classmates are at lunch.
"If they are talking and laughing, I sometimes don't do anything about it," Giglio said. "If they are communicating, I figure it's a win."
Her lessons focus on reading, grammar and other standard skills.
It usually takes one to two years for students to become comfortable conversing in English.
"But then the work begins," said Peter Kenny, director of East Hartford's English as a Second Language program, which has about 350 Language Learner students.
Kenny cites statistics that suggest most students take about seven years to attain what is considered academic language proficiency.
"It's one thing to learn English," he said, "but it's another thing to be learning in English."
Language Learner students fall into a category known by the federal government as "limited English proficiency." By whatever name, they form one of the subgroups whose testing performance determines whether a school or district is making adequate yearly progress.
In most cases, Language Learner students in state schools are required to take standardized math tests the year that they enroll and all tests starting the following academic year.
According to state officials, 18 schools across the state have been cited in part because of the Language Learner students' performance.
The money to pay for instructing Language Learner students comes from a variety of sources, including about $3.7 million that the federal government sends to the state through a department with the cumbersome title of the Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students.
In Manchester, which has 225 Language Learner students speaking 30 separate languages and dialects, the federal Title 3 grant is just over $16,000.
State funds are also provided for bilingual programs.
Critics of No Child Left Behind say districts do not receive nearly enough funding to ensure that Language Learner students can keep up with the ever-increasing academic standards.
Critics also note that the number of students who reach standards that allow them to exit Language Learner programs is far surpassed by new arrivals.
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