The Future For A Failing State: English Language Learners


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The U.S. Dept. of Ed. says Mississippi needs to do more for English Language Learners. Photo by LM Otero, Associated Press.

JACKSON, Miss. - Mississippi schools are changing the way they look at minorities and special populations such as students with disabilities. Those changes are being proposed through a waiver the state has requested from some of the provisions of the federal 2001 No Child Left Behind law. Federal reviewers of Mississippi’s waiver plans stress the importance of developing support for English Language Learners – a group growing quickly from an influx of Hispanic immigrants.

In less than ten years, the number of Hispanic students in Mississippi has more than doubled. A portion of those kids arrive at school speaking Spanish only. Some schools are employing more bilingual teachers and retooling elementary reading programs, but others do little to address the needs of those with limited or no English speaking skills.

That’s a problem for immigrant parents such as Irma, who would only give her first name. She says her kids spoke only Spanish when they first got to school and that put them way behind.

“They do struggle, sometimes, understanding the material, understating the vocabulary,” says Irma, speaking through a translator. “It really puts them at a huge disadvantage. And I would like for the school that these kids that only speak Spanish, or are bilingual, really are not like the other kids.”

Irma adds that most parents can assist their kids with their homework, but language barriers prevent her from being much help, and often her oldest child helps the younger ones. Every now and then, one of her kids will get a teacher that will run announcements through translation software, but usually Irma says she‘s in the dark.

“People like me, who don’t speak English and the teacher, who doesn’t speak Spanish, we would meet and she would talk to me, but I could not understand her,” says Irma. “So I would sit there. She would talk to me. I would take the papers, and we would look at each other and leave. And no communication happened because we didn’t know what to do. No one could speak the other language. I just sat there and listened and left when she was done.”

The U.S. Department of Education is asking Mississippi to take steps to improve services to non-English speaking families. The request came after federal reviewers examined Mississippi’s No Child Left Behind waiver request. They shot down many of the state’s plans for assessing and improving student learning because they didn’t go far enough to address the needs of English Language Learners.

Dr. Lynn House, Deputy Superintendent at the Mississippi Department of Education says this feedback was not a surprise.

“We’ve had difficulty really rolling out the significant training and the significant interventions in some areas because of the small numbers,” says House. “A school, for instance, may have five children, two children or one child.”

Mississippi schools are not required under No Child Left Behing to show test scores for small student populations – a problem often cited as one deficiency of the law. Without data showing English Learners falling behind year after year, how do you establish a benchmark for change? So before it approves waivers, the federal government wants to see a standardized system of support offered to English learners, especially in schools that aren’t seeing academic growth.

Many states across the country have long had such practices, and many of them have much larger immigrant populations. But not all.  In neighboring, Louisiana, the Hispanic population is about the same percentage asMississippi’s.  The feds said look to Louisiana for a model of a system that is improving.

Erin Bendily, Deputy Superintendent at the Louisiana Department of Education, says one key is to first identify kids that need help and then provide incentives for schools to take them to the next step.

“And we developed some bonus points and some financial rewards to recognize and motivate that growth as well,” says Bendily.

As a result of the feedback from the feds, Mississippi has added to its waiver request plans for rewarding schools that improve student achievement overall, including English Language Learners. On top of that, teachers of English Learners will  be subjected to a new system of evaluation and improvement. And while success will be determined by test scores, critics say equity won’t be determined for years to come.

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