Lack of help adds to struggle for students learning English

Of 608 pupils eligible for language assistance, only 328 recieve any

Posted: Monday, May 01, 2000

Nearly half of Juneau's public school students who struggle with English get no extra help.

Lonna Stevens' daughter is going to be one of the lucky ones, but that's because the Native mother advocated for her child.

When one school referred her third-grader to special education because of behavior problems, Stevens switched her daughter mid-year to Harborview Elementary. There, the staff has recognized the child's communication barriers, her mother said.

At Harborview, her daughter was asked to tell stories and sing in class. It helped build her self-esteem to bring in something she already knew, Stevens said.

District not giving ESL fair funding, some say

Other federal programs provide langauge help, officials argue

Juneau advocates for students who struggle with English say the school district doesn't allocate its money fairly. They contrast the district's funding of those programs with funding for gifted and talented students.

The district has budgeted $398,650 for direct services for the 600 students in the English as a Second Language and Limited English Proficiency programs. About 45 percent of those students are Native.

Nearly half the students won't get special help, by the district's own account.

But the district has budgeted $677,000 next school year for special services to about 375 gifted and talented students, about 3 percent of whom are Native.

District officials said those budget figures aren't the whole picture. Students struggling with English benefit from some federally funded programs, whereas the gifted and talented program receives no grants.

Indian Studies, which includes some tutoring, was funded at $247,000 this school year. Literacy Links, which helps Native pre-schoolers, got $198,000 this year. And a federal program for low-income children, which includes literacy teachers, was funded at $457,000 this year, district officials said.

But those programs serve only a small number of students and don't reach every classroom, said Phyllis Carlson, a Native education advocate and parent.

``I don't think it's making up for very much of that deficit in funding,'' she said.

Fred Hiltner, a Harborview Elementary teacher, said the district has worked hard with the ESL and LEP students, but he sees it as a continuing equity and civil rights issue.

Besides funds for more teacher training, he'd like to see a discussion about bias.

``None of the teachers are intentionally treating these kids differently, but it's a lack of awareness and understanding and information about how to work with LEP students,'' Hiltner said. ``An LEP student needs to have the program delivered differently.''

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights enforces the federal mandate of equal access to education. The agency has published compliance guidelines, but it doesn't require any specific types of programs. The state requires school districts to submit annual plans for serving ESL and LEP students.

The Office of Civil Rights didn't return repeated calls. Charla Wright, the district's ESL/LEP coordinator, said Juneau complies with guidelines for equal access.

It's a truism that to own a language is to have power, said Haifa F. Sadighi, the ESL teacher at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.

``If you don't understand the language, the way you interact with the community is limited to your understanding,'' she said.

``She has had a miraculous few months at this school,'' Stevens said. Next year her daughter will get help from the school's teacher for students with limited English proficiency.

School district psychologist Doug Wessen said he sees lots of kids who ``act out'' or stop going to school because they struggle with language. And with the new state exam for a high school degree, doing poorly in academic English has more consequences than before, he said.

The school district says 608 students are eligible for services in the English as a Second Language (ESL) and Limited English Proficiency (LEP) program. But only 247 of them are served by specialists, and another 81 get extra help only through federally funded teachers, called literacy leaders, or through other reading programs.

That leaves 280 students, or 46 percent, who get no special services.

ESL students do not speak English as their primary language. Many are from other countries. Because they know one language well, they often pick up basic English fairly quickly, local educators said. But the students often don't get the extra help to take them to a higher cognitive level, educators added.

Most Juneau LEP students are Alaska Natives who speak English but whose parents or grandparents aren't proficient in English. Those students often have long-term trouble with academic English and standardized tests, educators said.

Fred Hiltner, who teaches kindergarten through second grade at Harborview, said LEP students who chatter happily with their friends on the playground may struggle with written words in the classroom, where reading becomes more inferential.

``That's where a lot of kids have a hard time understanding the complexities of literature or different uses of the language,'' he said.

With the ESL/LEP students, ``we come to a level where we cannot go any further because of our limited services,'' said Haifa F. Sadighi, the ESL teacher at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. ``Those are the students who swim through the waters but will never be champions.''

The state has put the highest priority on helping non-English speaking students, and the LEP students have been less likely to get any extra language help, said Charla Wright, the school district's ESL/LEP coordinator.

The school district is aware it hasn't been as successful with Alaska Native students, Wright said. ``And we are putting a lot of effort into doing a better job of that.''

Two years ago the district switched from using teacher aides to half-time certificated teachers to work with ESL and LEP students individually or in small groups. Students getting direct help has jumped from roughly a third to a half, Wright said.

The district also plans to train regular classroom teachers in ways to help ESL and LEP students, she said.

``All of the students have contact with teachers. So the question is what is the best help,'' Wright said. ``A lot of the time the regular classroom is the best environment for the student.''

Pulling out ESL and LEP students in small groups is essential, but all teachers need better training, agreed Bernie Sorenson, principal at Glacier Valley Elementary and the district's former ESL/LEP coordinator.

She'd like the state to require an ESL/LEP endorsement for teaching certificates. Even many of the ESL teachers in Juneau don't have that endorsement, Sorenson said.

``When teachers know how language is learned, they will design curriculum and lessons around that,'' she said.

Other pieces in the puzzle are tutoring through the Indian Studies Program, a new after-school academic program in the middle schools, and an upcoming Tlingit-language kindergarten and first-grade classroom at Harborview, said district officials.

Stevens, the Native parent, thinks a Tlingit program will help Native children master English because they'll have to refer to both languages for meaning and context. She also favors a culturally-based program that includes ESL instruction.

``You're living in two different worlds,'' Stevens said. ``You live at home as a Native child. Then you go to school and you're alone, you're completely by yourself. So how do we take these two worlds and have the child be comfortable with that?''

Jerry Schoenberger, principal at Riverbend Elementary, wants to see more specialists.

Of 143 ESL and LEP students at Riverbend, only 41 are served by the ESL teacher and another 23 by a literacy leader. That's true even though Riverbend, alone among the elementary schools, has a full-time ESL teacher.

``I'd like to see more staffing in terms of teachers working with those kids with specific programs that are known to work. I think intervention is going to be the key for these kids to be successful,'' Schoenberger said.

``It's going to be difficult for the regular classroom teacher to be that differentiated in the curriculum and meet the needs of all the students.''

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