English: Key to America
Cincinnati Inquirer
July 21, 2005
By Michael D. Clark, Enquirer staff writer

WEST CHESTER TWP. - America Vega was named for her new country and it didn't take the young Mexican girl long after moving here to understand that learning English is a key to success in the United States.

The 11-year-old fifth-grader is among a soaring number of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky students taking English instruction classes this summer. She joins more than 80 other Lakota students from Mexico, South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Pakistan and India who are taking such classes.

"We learn a lot more than English. We learn all about the United States," America said during a recent break in her culture classes at Freedom Elementary in West Chester Township.

As immigrants move in, demand for English instruction classes has leaped in recent years, along with the costs of such programs.

In Ohio, the number of students who need to learn English has climbed 110 percent from 1993 to 2003 to 26,500 students. In Kentucky, figures were up 61 percent for the same decade to 16,353.

Several local school districts - including Mason, Cincinnati Public Schools, Lakota and Boone County schools - have seen even faster growth.

Each of those districts now spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on staff and supplies to provide English as a Second Language courses. If demand continues, officials say districts will need more.

That demand for money would indeed grow if English becomes the official language of Ohio.

A bill, to be introduced in September by Ohio Rep. Courtney Combs, R-Hamilton, seeks to add Ohio to the 27 states - including Kentucky and Indiana - that already have made English their official language.

Nationwide, more than 4.2 million students are listed as immigrants, according to U.S. Department of Education.

Many speak little or no English. So, during the school year or in summer classes, they are enrolled in special English as a Second Language (ESL) or Limited English Proficient (LEP) classes where they are immersed in both language and cultural instruction.

The classes are the latest version of America's "melting pot" immigrant tradition. But the courses have taken on even more importance since the sweeping reforms of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

That's because language barriers often cause immigrant student's test scores to be lower-than-average. That can hurt the child's education and future opportunities - and hurt a school district's state rankings.

Combs said his "Ohio English Unity Act" would "give Ohioans every opportunity to achieve their goals and dreams, but without a common language those dreams and goals may be unattainable."

"Providing equal footing for all should be a state priority," Combs said. "Immigrants who are not proficient in English earn 17 percent less than immigrants of similar backgrounds, experience and education who are proficient in English. We cannot allow any Ohioan to be at such a disadvantage."

Maria Cecilia Sivira moved 10 months ago from Venezuela to West Chester Township, with her husband, who is a chemist with Procter & Gamble.

Their second-grade son is among the students taking English classes at Freedom Elementary. She likes the idea of an official language for Ohio.

"You have to speak English to survive here and if you live here you are supposed to speak the language," Sivira said.

Beyond just teaching the language, such courses can provide instruction on history, emergency procedures, nutrition and American culture.

Helen Vassiliou, a teacher at Lakota's Hopewell Elementary, said she fears that establishing an official language for Ohio may not be followed by more money for English instruction.

"One standard language is ideal but we need more funding for these programs," Vassiliou said. "These children are the future of America and we are teaching these kids how to survive."

Ezra Escudero, executive director of the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs, also says Ohio's 614 public school districts will need more money should Combs' bill become law. So will programs housed in local churches, YMCAs, social service agencies, private schools and other agencies.

"There is a hodge-podge network now in communities," Escudero said. "We need more funding for (English) programs in schools but also a one-time community fund so community groups can apply for grants."

Several local school districts say they are scrambling to cope with immigrants , who come from all sorts of backgrounds, moving into their districts.

Four years ago, the 17,000-student Lakota schools had fewer than 100 students trying to catch up with English. This fall, more than 300 ESL students - speaking as many as 30 different languages - are enrolled.

In 2001-02, the Mason schools had 51 immigrant students taking English classes. This past school year, the number had soared to 195. Likewise, the costs have grown from $37,000 in 2001 to hire an outside firm to teach the classes to creating an in-house staff that cost more than $200,000 last year.

In Cincinnati Public Schools fewer than 200 students were taking English as a Second Language courses in 2002. Last school year, the district had 868.

Since the No Child Left Behind Act requires even immigrant students to annually demonstrate academic progress, districts have no choice but to pay for such programs, said Carol Hallman, secondary curriculum coordinator for Fairfield schools.

"In many districts, including Fairfield, we are struggling with the added costs of educating (English as a Second Language) students," said Hallman.

She also said the expense is worth it.

"Overall ... ESL students are making a positive contribution to our schools. The cultural richness they bring is beneficial," she said. "And many students are inspiring role models of individuals who are willing to work very hard, sometimes under difficult situations, in order to successfully earn an American education."

E-mail mclark@enquirer.com