Teachers English learners aren't getting enough help
Des Moines Register
April 11, 2006


The Mexican flag dangles with others from the ceiling in the classroom where Dan Ketchum teaches English to primarily Latino immigrants.

Ketchum, who teaches at Des Moines' Central Campus, said research shows that the three years the state pays for students to learn English probably will not be enough to help the immigrants and refugees in his high school language class succeed academically in English. It probably won't be enough to help the students join the skilled work force that Iowa needs in the future, he and other educators worry.

"Most need some help beyond three years," Ketchum said.

As the nation debates immigration proposals that could potentially affect millions of immigrants across the country, the debate has spilled over into Iowa classrooms filled with English language learners.

"I tell the kids, 'Remember why you are here,' " Kim Nguyen, an English Language Learner, or ELL, teacher at Central Campus, said during conversations with her students about immigration. "They are here for a better life, for a good education.

"The kids say, 'We pay taxes but we don't have a Social Security card,' " she said. "But maybe later on the laws will change. Who knows? You're here. Get a good education."

Research shows it takes between five and seven years to learn English well enough to succeed scholastically. Iowa school districts this year received $4,931 per pupil. Districts received $6,016 per pupil for ELL students, or about $11.9 million. Schools receive the additional money for ELL students for three years.

Hoping for state money
Ketchum and other Iowa educators hope the Legislature this year approves a proposal to extend the financial support to four years. Extending the program would cost an additional $3.8 million next year, if approved by lawmakers. Jeff Berger, legislative liaison with the Iowa Department of Education, said the proposal to extend the program to four years is currently under consideration by Gov. Tom Vilsack and legislative leaders.

Not all Iowans support spending more money to educate immigrants especially immigrants who are in the country illegally. It's difficult to estimate the number of undocumented immigrants who graduate from high schools across the country each year, but the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, puts the figure at 65,000.

That angers retiree Albert Barwick , 69, of Agency.

"I don't want my money to go to educating illegal immigrants," Barwick said.

Richard Miller, 61, a former Iowan who lives in Nevada, said he opposes educational programs that benefit those who are in the country illegally.

"I guess we've got to educate them, because it irritates the hell out me that they don't speak English," Miller said.

Students who need language help beyond the three years remain in ELL programs and school districts find other ways to pay for the instruction, officials said.

Iowa has 16,822 students in ELL programs this year. Of those students, 5,853, or 35 percent, were in the program longer than three years, according to the most recent state education data. Des Moines officials said it takes students an average of 4.8 years to exit the program.

Students in Ketchum's class can range in age from 14 to 21. During a class period recently, they studied English and worked to earn a history credit using a fifth-grade history book, Ketchum said. The high schoolers spend half a day in the language programs at Central Campus before returning to their home high schools.

Iduan Arreola, 16, a 10th-grader at Des Moines' East High School, was educated in Mexico and moved to Iowa in 2003. Arreola is quick to offer answers in English in Ketchum's class, but his understanding falters in classes like science, he said.

"I'm the only Latino there," he said. "I have to tell the teacher to wait."

To prepare a skilled work force and to help immigrants contribute to Iowa's economy, districts need more money to extend language programs beyond three years and to improve the methods used to teach English to the state's growing immigrant population, said Carmen Sosa, a consultant with the Iowa Department of Education.

"You want to create a work force that has the competency to do the work it has to do," said Vinh Nguyen , coordinator of Des Moines' English Language Learner program. "For the future of the state, I hope people begin to think about that. They're not going anywhere. They're here. They're staying here."

Projections show Iowa's minority population will dramatically increase over the next 25 years the state's Latino population is expected to more than double from 104,199 to 269,630 by the year 2030.

Des Moines, the state's largest school district, serves 25 percent of the state's ELL population. The ELL program began in Des Moines in 1975 with 275 Southeast Asian refugees and has grown to 3,703 students this year. About 62 percent of those students' native language is Spanish, said Vinh Nguyen.

Nationwide, there were 9.5 million Latinos in K-12 public schools in 2003, according to census data. About 5 million of those students were English language learners, according to the National Council of La Raza.

Different strategies
Educators across the country have debated whether traditional ELL programs or dual language programs are best. In dual language programs, all students, not just English language learners, study in two languages, usually English and Spanish.

"Research says the most effective programs are the dual language programs in which both languages are taught," Sosa said. "There's the maintenance of language one. And the learning of language two."

In Iowa, most ELL teachers instruct students in English, and some have bilingual tutors to assist students. Sosa said few districts use dual language programs because they can't afford to hire bilingual teachers.

The bulk of teaching is not done that way in Iowa" because we don't have the resources. In order to provide immersion, they have to have bilingual staff," she said.

Marshalltown and West Liberty have dual language programs, and pilot programs exist in Postville and Sioux City, she said. A school improvement group in Perry on Wednesday began studying the feasibility of a dual language program there, an official said.

"There's some pretty compelling evidence that the programs are pretty successful," said Randy McCaulley , superintendent of the Perry school district.

About 270 kindergarten through fifth-graders participate in Marshalltown's dual language program, in its fourth year. The district received a $1.4 million, five-year federal grant to implement the program. Marshalltown has about 5,000 students, of which 1,300 are English language learners, officials said.

"We're finding that it is as the research says: a very effective program for our English language learners," said Lisa Wymore, director of the two-way bilingual program at Woodbury Elementary School. "With our English dominant students, they're steadily increasing their Spanish proficiency, but they're becoming bilingual without a cost to their native language."

But others aren't so sure the programs are the way to go.

Kim Nguyen, the Des Moines ELL teacher, said four or five languages are typically spoken in one Des Moines ELL classroom, which would make dual language programs difficult in a district of Des Moines' size, where students speak 48 languages.

Overcoming the barriers
Bud Anderson, department chair of the ELL program at Des Moines' Central Campus, said extra help for the English language learners is necessary. He said Iowans would be more sympathetic if they imagined how difficult it is to do what the newcomers do every day.

"How would it be if I moved to a new country, didn't know much about the culture, had to learn a whole new language?" Anderson said. "How would I deal with that?"

Brenda Contreras, 15, is a ninth-grader at Des Moines' Lincoln High School. She moved to Iowa from El Salvador three years ago. She and a younger sister are the only ones in their family who can understand and speak English, she said.

"It's kind of hard," she said.

Deng Deng, 18, a 10th-grader at East High School and a Sudanese refugee who lived in Egypt before moving to Des Moines two years ago, already spoke some English. He said teachers and tutors here are a big help.

"It's easy because the teacher explains all the words," he said.

Educators said the immigrant students can face many barriers to their education.

Some Latino students return to Mexico for months at a time, which can hinder their education, Nguyen said.

"It's a cultural thing," Nguyen said.

Educators said some students must work jobs to support their families. Some are living here without their parents. Others have had little experience with schools in their native countries. Some have irregular attendance.

"Their education has been totally broken up," Nguyen said.

Older students, like those in Ketchum's and Nguyen's classes, are trying to learn English as teenagers, which is much more difficult, the teachers said.

That's why new programs must be created to address the language needs of older students and adults, the teachers said. It's difficult, if not impossible, for some of the older students to learn enough English as high schoolers, earn enough credits to graduate and then get good-paying jobs, Anderson said.

Despite the barriers, educating immigrant students is a high priority, Iowa educators said. Without a solid education and good English skills, educators and others fear the students' future and their ability to join the highly skilled workforce Iowa will need is at risk.

Without it, "they're going to be doing entry-level work," Anderson said.