School district navigates increase in EL population

By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

The South-Western City School District continues to see a rise in the number of students whose native language is not English.

On April 8, the board of education received an update on the English Learner program from coordinator Ed Kennedy.

Kennedy told the board the district is rapidly approaching 4,000 students who are enrolled in the program that helps them obtain second language proficiency.

“We currently have 3,816 identified English language learners in the district at this point in time,” he said.

It is the largest number of students who have been enrolled in the program since the district began identifying English learners.

Kennedy said the only decline he expects to see is when students exit the program after receiving second language proficiency status.

“Accounting for all of our demographic data we track, we can safely assume that we will continue to see a rise in our EL population,” he said. “This is especially the case considering the many different refugee situations created by things happening throughout the world, as well as in consideration of the status of Columbus, Ohio as a primary relocation point area once refugees have entered through other cities throughout the country.”

The native language the majority of students in the English Learner program speak is Spanish.

“Seventy to 71 percent of our families and our students are Spanish speaking,” said Kennedy.

Spanish is followed by Somali or Arabic at 20 percent, Ukrainian at 6 percent, and Hakha Chin at 3 percent. Overall, there are close to 80 different languages and dialects spoken in the district.

Kennedy said when students whose native language is not English enroll in the district, the majority of them – approximately 53 percent – meet state newcomer requirements. The newcomer status is based on their arrival date in United States schools or their second language acquisition results on state English Language Proficiency assessments.

Kennedy explained that this can pose a “real challenge” to the district’s EL educators, especially if those newcomers are in grades 8-12.

According to Kennedy, research shows that second language acquisition is acquired in two ways: The first step is through basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), which typically involves being able to carry on a conversation with a native speaker. Those oral language skills can be developed within one to three years.

The second step is through cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), which typically involves being able to understand formal academic language. Those skills can be developed within five to seven years.

Kennedy said the “great complicator” in that research is that it can take students who are in grades 8-12 up to seven to 12 years to acquire cognitive academic language proficiency. Given that the district will not have that much time with a majority of those students, Kennedy said it is “all hands on deck” to help them obtain proficiency.

“Everything we do has to be about how we lessen that time, how we get our kids to English language proficiency quicker and [in order to do that] we have to start with BICS before we can get to CALP.”

He said the district is able to do that by working with the staff to “leverage oral language and phonics practice to help students move toward oral language proficiency that leads to comprehension and proficiency in reading and writing in the content areas.”

In addition to the 3,816 identified English language learners in the district, there are a little more than 2,100 former EL students currently enrolled in the district who have exited the program because they have demonstrated proficiency in second language acquisition.

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