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Idaho schools are struggling to keep up with an increase in English-language learners 

click to enlarge State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra has requested increased funding for English learners in Idaho. - IDAHO EDUCATION NEWS PHOTO
  • Idaho Education News photo
  • State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra has requested increased funding for English learners in Idaho.

On any given day, Ruth Hawley may teach students in three different buildings at Coeur d'Alene Public Schools. As the district's only full-time "English learner" teacher, she spends her days in a high school, a middle school and, on a good day, an elementary school.

Her goal is to help students who normally speak a different language learn English, until they can fully transition to mainstream classrooms without her help. Yet soon, Hawley thinks it will be her who may need a little more help.

Right now, there's only one other English-learner teacher in Coeur d'Alene, and she works part time. But in the last three years, the number of English-learning students has more than doubled.

"Probably having more staffing would be nice, being able to provide more time — I don't always see my elementary kids every day," she says.

Other Idaho schools report similar increases in students for whom English is a second language. And across the state, according to a recent report by Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest, many schools are struggling to keep up with increasing enrollments of English-learner students. Of schools with at least 20 English-learner students, about a quarter didn't have an English language development teacher at all in 2016-17.

It's left Idaho education officials, including state superintendent Sherri Ybarra, clamoring for a way to keep up.

Today, 51 students qualify as English learners in Coeur d'Alene, up from 22 students just three years ago, according to the district. In Idaho, nearly one in 20 students are English learners, a term for students who have a primary or home language other than English and have not yet tested proficient in English.

The dramatic increase in English learners in Coeur d'Alene doesn't have much to do with a changing demographic in North Idaho. Rather, it reflects a change in standards that saw more students fall under the English-learner umbrella. A few years ago, Idaho adopted World Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) standards, which have been adopted by 35 other states. Under those standards, fewer students tested proficient in English.

"More kids qualify to be a part of our program and fewer kids are exiting the program because of the high standards that have been put into place," Hawley says.

A majority of those students are in elementary school. The students receive a mix of individualized instruction in an EL class, but spent most of the day in mainstream classrooms.

That's true even if a student knows no English, Hawley says. She remembers one kid showed up in the eighth grade without knowing a word of English. He spent time with Hawley one hour a day, and the rest of the time he took classes with his peers. Hawley helps his other teachers with curriculum because, as a recent district memo says, "EL students are everyone's responsibility."

Other districts in the state may do EL instruction differently. But high-poverty schools, it's clear, have a harder time finding teachers for English learners than low-poverty schools.

According to the Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest report released this January by the state department of education, high-poverty schools had an average of 38 English-learner students per teacher. For low-poverty schools, the ratio was just nine per teacher.

The Idaho State Department of Education thinks more support may be needed. In their budget request this legislative session, Ybarra and Gov. Butch Otter asked for money to keep up with the increased number of English-learner students in Idaho — a total of $4.87 million. That number would boost the per student funding amount and make up for the decrease districts have received per English learner. They also asked for more funding for a software program called Imagine Learning, which schools can use for English-deficient students.

To really keep up with the increasing number of students, however, districts may need to look for ways to solve the teacher shortage plaguing teaching subjects across the state, says Havala Hanson, the author of the Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest report. That could mean exploring easier ways for adults to become teachers, or recruiting from outside of Idaho. She says it's also important to create an environment within schools that encourages teachers to stay.

Regardless, Hawley says providing more resources for English learners can be vital to their success.

"It's all tied to how well kids are going to do in high school," Hawley says. "If they don't have the proficiency in English when they hit high school, it's going to be easier for them to get discouraged and try to go work than it is for them to finish school." ♦

The original print version of this article was headlined "Learning the language"

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