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St. Louis Post-Dispatch
English As Second Language Classes Boom
By CAROLYN BOWER Of the Post-Dispatch
17 September 2004
Area school districts say the influx of students speaking other languages challenges them because of the No Child Left Behind law.
As students debate their favorite Yu-Gi-Oh cartoon character or the best way to play ball, it is hard to tell that one in six students at Bierbaum Elementary School in south St. Louis County speaks English as a second language. Since the number of English language learners has quadrupled over six years, Bierbaum, in the Mehlville district, now sends information to parents not only in English but also in Bosnian. And school officials plan to translate parent information this year into other languages such as Spanish.
The situation is much the same in other districts in the St. Louis region, where the number of students who speak limited English has risen dramatically. In a few months Hazelwood will send families information in Spanish, Arabic and 14 other languages on issues such as testing, report cards and behavior guidelines. Parkway serves students speaking 43 languages.
As the number of English language learners increases, so does the number of languages spoken. Missouri students speak 98 languages. Students speak 400 languages across the nation, although the predominant language after English is Spanish.
"We are becoming more diverse," said Maria Hernandez Ferrier, a deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education.
Although born in the United States, Amira Alhiyari, 14, lived in Jordan and spoke Arabic in schools there for most of her life before returning to this country five years ago. Now she attends 10th grade at Hazelwood West High School, takes tests and does homework in English and plans to become a pharmacist.
Amira said it took several years to learn English, and she still seeks help at the school's English language learner center.
"It was hard in the beginning, but my teachers helped me," she said. Having more English language learners in the district makes it easier, Amira said. "I know there are other people going through what I went through."
While the United States falls short in the number of adults able to speak languages such as Farsi, Urdu and Kurdish and locate the countries where those languages are spoken, (Iran and Afghanistan; Pakistan and India; Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and parts of the former Soviet Union) such expertise among schoolchildren improves understanding of other countries and cultures, teachers say.
At the same time, the demographic changes also have brought additional work for schools seeking to meet state and federal accountability requirements for all students. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires students who speak limited English to take state math tests the first year they enter a U.S. school and state reading and writing tests the next year. States have the option of offering students the tests in their native language for up to three years, Ferrier said.
As of last fall, Missouri reported 14,855 students learning English. The number has grown by about 10 percent to 14 percent in each of the past few years. The number is nearly 2 percent of the state's public school enrollment.
In Illinois nearly 129,000 of the state's 2 million public school students speak limited English, with the highest percentage in the Chicago region.
Nationally, 5.5 million of the country's 48 million schoolchildren need help learning English. About 80 percent of them are Spanish-speaking.
"We think of this happening in California, when the numbers are growing fast in the Midwest," said Kathie Poe, an English language teacher at Bierbaum. "This is why we are scrambling for money and teachers. A lot of districts were not prepared."
In the Kansas City School District, enrollment of English language learners has nearly tripled over five years to 3,102, with two-thirds of them Spanish speakers.
Enrollment grew less slowly in St. Louis city schools, to 2,768 from 2,675. But enrollment has more than doubled in some school districts in neighboring St. Louis County and St. Charles County.
People from other countries have moved to the St. Louis region because of resettlement programs, affordable housing and jobs.
Ritenour Assistant Superintendent Jack Williams said that while everyone knew schools would enroll more language minority students, "five years ago I would not have guessed that we would have had this influx." There, the number of students with limited English rose to 233 last year from 117 five years earlier.
In Hazelwood, the number of students who speak English as a second language rose to 409 last year from 220 five years earlier. The number now is closer to 500, and 400 more students in the district speak English as a second language but receive no services, said Patrick Lane, who oversees the English language learner programs. The district has received a $450,000, three-year grant for translation, parent involvement and teacher training programs.
Hazelwood West students Annais Padua, 15, and her brother, Robin Llanos, 16, moved to the United States five years ago from Puerto Rico.
Robin, who plans to become an engineer, said he thinks it works best to take classes and tests in English. His sister, who wants to work as a crime scene investigator, would prefer to learn from teachers who speak English as well as a student's native language.
The federal government requires schools to provide services to students with limited English, but school districts decide how.
Some schools pull students with limited English out of class to work on their language skills. In other schools, teachers go into regular classes to help those students. A few schools teach students in English as well as their native language.
Parkway pulls students out of class for English instruction and also sends English language teachers into classes, said Laura Terrell, who oversees the district's program.
A student may become fluent enough in English after two to three years to talk with their friends and teachers, but some may take seven to nine years to understand the language of academics such as physics or biology, Terrell said. Students who learn English in younger grades have an easier time than those who start in high school.
Bierbaum has two teachers and a teaching assistant to work with students who come to school fluent in a language other than English.
Poe has spent most of the first two weeks of school testing the English ability of her students.
One, Bakir Vehabovic, 9, a fourth-grader, arrived in this country from Bosnia three years ago.
Seven of the 25 students in his class know English as a second language. At lunch, Bakir discusses Yu-Gi-Oh monsters with both Bosnian- and English-speaking friends.
While Terrell applauds the intention of the No Child Left Behind law to hold schools accountable for students with limited English, she said it is unfair to expect children from another country to take the same state test as their English-speaking peers.
In Mehlville, Bierbaum's principal, Steve Langhorst agrees.
"People are not all the same height," he said. "They don't all have the same color of eyes. So why do we expect them all to learn the same thing at the same time?"
Multiple languages spoken here In Missouri, 14,855 students are learning English as a second language. Statewide, at least 90 different languages are spoken in the districts. Here are some local school districts with at least 10 English as a second language students, and the languages spoken. Affton: Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian 96 Bayless: Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian 139, Vietnamese 26, Spanish 19 Clayton: Chinese 40, Korean 27, Japanese 12 Ferguson-Florissant: Spanish 50, Swahili 10 Fort Zumwalt: Spanish 31 Francis Howell: Spanish 71, Chinese 12, Punjabi 11 Hancock Place: Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian 66 Hazelwood: Arabic 127, Spanish 122, African tribal 14, Vietnamese 14, Yoruba 14, Chinese 12, Mandarin 11, Swahili 11, Cantonese 10, Hollister: Spanish 29 Kirkwood: Spanish 10 Lindbergh: Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian 55 Mehlville: Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian 218, Chinese 19, Spanish 15, Vietnamese 13, Arabic 12 Normandy: Spanish 10 Parkway: Spanish 77, Korean 75, Urdu 42, Chinese 29, Japanese 11, Bulgarian 17, Mandarin 16, Russian 12, Arabic 12, Pattonville: Spanish 112, Arabic 19, Chinese 12, Vietnamese 10 Ritenour: Spanish 144, Vietnamese 18, Arabic 15, Punjabi 10 Riverview Gardens: Spanish 15, Amharic 11 Rockwood: Spanish 56, Chinese 31, Russian 24, Korean 16, Urdu 16, Vietnamese 13, Arabic 11, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian 10 St. Charles: Spanish 95 St. Louis: Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian 1,345, Spanish 414, Vietnamese 317, Farsi 162, Albanian 105, Somali 103, Arabic 82, French 49, Kurdish 49, Laotian 23, Persian 23, Amharic 14, African tribal 13 Valley Park: Spanish 21 Wentzville: Spanish 11 Wright City: Spanish 37