By Dedra Cordle
A record number of students who have previously been identified as English Learners have exited the program in the South-Western City Schools District. Officials say those numbers are a reflection of the strength of the program rather than an indicator of a decline in its overall EL population.
There are approximately 3,500 students in the district who are currently identified as English Learners – the second most in the state, said district officials.
That number would be much higher, explained EL program coordinator Ed Kennedy, but nearly 2,000 previously identified EL students have now reached proficient level status in their second language acquisition.
“That is a genuine indicator that we are making progress as a program,” he said during a board of education meeting on March 21.
A little more than 50 percent of the EL population comes to the district at a “newcomer” level.
“Newcomer typically means they are at a younger age, primarily around the elementary level, and have little understanding of the English language,” he said after the meeting.
Kennedy said younger students can be like sponges, able to pick up new language skills within a few years.
“If they spend one to two years in a new country, the spoken part is going to be pretty good.”
He said within five to seven years, they begin to better develop cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), such as being able to read textbooks, understand tests, and produce written language.
Kennedy said the district provides intentional instruction – such as pairing EL students with peers who also speak their first language – so they can achieve basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and CALP within the typical development range.
The challenge the district has, said Kennedy, is helping “adolescent newcomers” reach proficiency within that time frame.
“Some of our EL students come to us as teenagers and we do not have them for five to seven years,” he said.
He added that research indicates it typically takes 7-12 years for adolescent newcomers to reach CALP.
When it comes to this demographic, Kennedy said the district is “all hands-on-deck” so they can at least get them to the BICS level.
“They have to get to BICS before they can reach CALP,” he said. “But we are committed to doing all that we can to get our EL students to proficient status in the second language acquisition.”
During the EL program presentation on March 21, Kennedy also shared a snapshot of the spoken languages and dialects within the district. He said there are currently 78 different languages and dialects spoken by the students.
Of those numbers, the four largest language groups are Spanish at 71 percent; Somali and Arabic at 20 percent; Hakha Chin at 4 percent; and Ukrainian at 3 percent.
Kennedy said the district could very likely see an increase in the Ukrainian population within 15 months due to the millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war. He said they are currently working with CRIS, the Community Refugee and Immigration Services, to get programming in place.