English instruction struggling to keep up
The Denver Post
Nov. 2, 2006

Schools are putting a priority on bilingual teachers and curriculum to cope with a jump in nonnative speakers.

Article Last Updated:11/02/2006 10:54:05 PM MST http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_4594695

Karla Esser can find teachers for core subjects and teachers trained in instructing English-language learners.

But Esser, who oversees curriculum and instruction for the Sheridan School District, has trouble finding teachers who have both skills.

"You don't have a plethora of qualified content and English-language teachers," she said. "They just don't come with both qualifications."

Yet finding such teachers - as well as designing tests and curriculum to better suit English-learners - is becoming more of a priority statewide as the English-learner population booms.

Sheridan, which serves 1,700 students, saw its nonnative-English- speaking population balloon from about 50 kids in 1990 to more than 670 students this year, Esser said.

A national report released Thursday by the Alliance for Excellent Education found that from 1995 to 2005, the population of Colorado's public school students not proficient in English grew 238 percent.

It jumped from 27,000 students in public schools during the 1994-95 school year to 91,000 students during the 2004-05 school year, according to Jeanne Batalova, policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, which contributed to the report.

Schools are not prepared to serve the growing population, particularly adolescents in sixth through 12th grades, the report said.

"Not only do these students have to master complex course content ... they have fewer years to master the English language," according to the report, titled "Double the Work, Challenges and Solutions to Acquiring Language and Academic Literacy for Adolescent English Language Learners."

As a result, the report said, older English- learners are falling behind, showing dramatically lower graduation rates and poor test scores. On the 2005 National Assessment for Educational Progress test, a nationally administered test, just 4 percent of eighth-grade English-learners were proficient or advanced readers, according to the report.

State officials acknowledge Colorado is struggling to keep up.

"We just haven't kept up with capacity," said Barbara Medina, English Language Acquisition director for the Colorado Department of Education. "We're aware of them. ... They're falling behind in terms of reading."

Medina said that for the roughly 110,000 students in Colorado who are currently English-language learners, there are just about 2,400 teachers.

She said educators are talking across states, trying to identify the best practices.

Mark Clarke, professor of language, literacy and culture at the University of Colorado at Denver, said his students working as teachers increasingly want to learn how to teach nonnative-English- speaking students.

"We have experienced teachers who for the first time are having to work with limited-English students," Clarke said. "They didn't go in to work with it, but they can't avoid it."

Esser said the Sheridan district has gone from having one teacher work with English-learners in each of its four buildings, to one teacher per grade. Of those, seven are also trained to teach core subjects.

Staff writer Karen Rouse can be reached at 303-954-1684 or krouse@denverpost.com