This piece accompanies the Teaching Tolerance feature story "Lonely Language Learners?"
Just after 8 o'clock on a rainy April morning, teacher Helen Reid greets three of her students, none of whom has been in the U.S. for more than seven months. Each looks up expectantly.
For these 2nd- and 3rd-graderås, words such as "library," "computer" and "cart" are sounded out slowly, the students' English flavored by their native Spanish. R's get rolled. "Ees" replaces "is."
"What are these?" Reid asks, pointing.
"Revistas," says Yareli, 8.
The answer is quick but not what Reid seeks. "Yes, but in English," she insists.
Yareli looks confused.
Reid reminds her student that this is a word they have worked on before.
After a few more false starts, Yareli gets it: "Magazines!" she shouts.
Schools across the country are looking for ways to work with increasing numbers of students who do not speak English. Research points to successful methods, but many school districts lack the resources to train teachers, purchase materials or structure classrooms to embrace this new reality.
Midland Park Elementary in North Charleston, S.C., where Reid teaches, serves students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds in the state's second-largest school system. Just 17 percent of English language learner (ELL) students scored "proficient" or better on the 2007 state-mandated English/language arts tests used to measure the school's academic goals.
Some 650 English language learners were enrolled in the Charleston County school system in 2001. By spring 2008, the number hit 1,790. Rachel Amey, who oversees the system's English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, expects the number to pass 2,000 this school year.
Faced with this growth, the four full-time ELL teachers at Midland Park struggle to keep up, pulling some students out of class for ELL instruction for 40 minutes every day.
They're not alone.
Researchers at the Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence, located at the University of California at Berkeley, suggest that by the 2030s, English language learners may make up 40 percent of the nation's school-age population.
Unequal Playing Field
In trying to keep up with the growth, schools implement programs unevenly. As research points in one direction, public schools are often caught looking in another. And while general education teachers play a crucial role in ELL learning, they often have no training.
"A lot of things come into play, given that working with English language learners is often connected to other social and political issues," says John Segota of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) professional organization. "All teachers should receive training about working with a diverse classroom."
But a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that only 12.5 percent of teachers with ELL students in their classrooms have had even a day's worth of ELL training in the past three years.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that less than 5 percent of 8th-grade English language learners scored at or above "proficient" in reading in 2007, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
And the 8th-grade reading score has gone up only 1 percent, despite current federal law — the No Child Left Behind Act, signed in 2002 — that requires schools to make progress with all students or face sanctions.
At Midland Park Elementary, 44 percent of the school's 714 students are not proficient in English.
Drawn by the neighborhood's less-expensive housing and proximity to manufacturing and other jobs, families have relocated from places like Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, often speaking little or no English.
Still, the school is lucky to have full-time ESOL teachers. Most of the 36 ESOL teachers in Charleston County's program — up from 12 in 2001 — are itinerant. They shuttle each day among English language learners at multiple schools and multiple grade levels.
While the school system's budget provides pay and benefits for staff, Amey says there is little local money available to buy enough books and materials. For that, she relies on federal grant money. Still, students are asked to use software at school instead of taking it home. And there aren't enough workbooks to send them home with students.
There isn't much wiggle room for innovation, but Amey and her teachers try.
In August 2006, Charleston opened its first "newcomer center" at a local elementary school. Eligible students from three schools were enrolled, allowing the system to pool and concentrate its resources for students with the least proficiency in English.
Amey expected that these students would need a full year's worth of specialized instruction, but by December they moved into mainstream classes.
That success led to the opening of a newcomer center for middle school students the following year.
Amey wishes she could have a newcomer center in every part of the district. Instead, she has Midland Park.
A Team Effort
Midland Park is a test case for the district, and its latest English language learner effort involves "push in" instruction that helps teachers like Reid align their lessons to real-time classroom content.
"Most of our elementary [program] is pull-out," meaning ELL students are pulled out of classrooms to receive some services, Amey says. In fact, pull-out instruction – where English language learners are taught in separate classrooms – is predominately used throughout the system, even though it is falling out of favor nationally.
Research is suggesting a move away from pull-out ELL instruction, according to Paul Matthews, assistant director for the University of Georgia's Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education. Push in-type instruction minimizes disruption and keep English learners closer to the action, he says.
"In the old days, the assumption was the ESOL teacher was going to do everything for these kids," agrees Tim Boals, executive director of the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, a 17-state consortium based at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "(But now) we're not doing our job if we're not helping our (general) education teachers understand their role. It really is a whole school effort."
Theory and action, though, are two different things.
"The reality is, a lot of programs are still pull-out in orientation," Boals says. "We have to provide teachers with strategies that meet them where they are."
Consider Reid on that April morning. Shifting from pull-out to push-in, Reid's lesson with the 2nd- and 3rd-graders ends, and she gathers her materials and heads to a 4th-grade general education classroom down the hall.
There, she sits in the main classroom at a table with three English language learners. The general education teacher is teaching a science lesson. Reid is teaching the science lesson, too, but at a more individualized pace for her students.
Midland Park started push-in instruction in January 2008, prompted not only by academic need but by the sheer numbers.
Brian Agnew, the school's assistant principal, said administrators had concerns "that by doing pull-out, there were too many kids missing a lot of time." One teacher, he said, had her entire class together in the same room for only one hour a day.
What does that mean for Reid? She has had to learn five schedules that involve five different curricula.
"That was the hardest," she says, speaking of the planning needed to make that work. Additionally, not all the classrooms have a physical set-up that gives her room to work.
Later the same morning, trying to do push-in with a different class, she winds up sitting with her students outside, in the hallway – a pulled-out moment in a push-in system, the kind of jumbled patchwork many schools are experiencing.
Midland Park is part of that jumble, working hard to move forward.
And school officials are excited for the future: Embracing further innovation, Midland Park for the 2008-09 school year is set to pilot a program that involves "dual-language" immersion.
There's a lot behind that type of program, says Matthews of the University of Georgia. He cites research that has looked at classes where both native English speakers and speakers of other languages work and use each language together.
"After about three years," Matthews says, "all kids are performing better than in just English-only models."
The Dual-Language Approach
That's the experience at Unidos Dual Language Charter School in Clayton County, Ga.
Unidos opened in 2006 as the first public school in the state to use two-way bilingual immersion for its entire curriculum.
Dell Perry, Unidos' dual language coordinator, is a former English as a Second Language teacher who studied the program design as she pursued her doctorate at the University of Georgia.
She became convinced a dual immersion program would work here, especially as the state experiences a population shift. As the Southern Regional Education Board has noted, the number of Latino public high school graduates in Georgia is expected to grow from 3,942 in 2008 to 24,566 in 2022.
"This was what Georgia needed and, in my mind, is a much more logical way to address language acquisition," Perry said.
Unidos is open to all students, not just those with limited English proficiency, although such students make up 41 percent of enrollment.
Though it is a Title I school, meaning it serves students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, it receives the same local per-pupil funding as other elementary schools in the county. And it meets federally required testing goals.
At Unidos, all kindergartners and 1st-graders receive 70 percent of their instruction in Spanish. For older students, the split between Spanish and English for all instruction goes 50-50.
"Our children are learning to read two languages at the same time," says school Principal Nancy Said. "They learn mathematics in Spanish, science in Spanish, social studies in Spanish."
The school's approach to teaching Spanish and English is unusual compared with most U.S. school language programs.
"It's a much deeper level of learning," Said says. "We're not teaching Spanish. We're teaching in Spanish."