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Not speaking the same language

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:30 PM

Not speaking the same language

More English language learners, fewer teachers pose major challenges


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UTICA - Chit Myaing waited in line Tuesday to register her 4-year-old for kindergarten.

Unlike other parents enrolling their children in the Utica City School District, the Karen refugee who arrived here in 2007 needs something more for her son.

He doesn't speak English.

"The English is very important to communicate to other people," Myaing said.

There are about 1,512 English language learners in the district, with more on the way.

Money, however, is not as abundant, making the already difficult learning process more taxing for these students.

The district has increased its English as a Second Language teaching staff - up until now.

"We have as many as we can afford right now," Superintendent Bruce Karam said. "If we don't have the money to pay the existing teachers and we have to lay off teachers and other staff in the district in order to balance the budget, then we don't have those resources to hire new teachers."

In the past 10 years, the number of English language learners in the Utica district grew from 1,353 in 2004-05 to about 1,512 this year. The staff rose with the population, from 30.5 ESL teachers in 2004-05 to 42 today.

Facing a $6.2 million budget deficit, the district's approximately $139 million budget for 2013-14 includes a 2 percent tax increase and the elimination of 94 positions, 59 of which are teaching.

Included in the cuts: two ESL teachers.

The original proposed budget included a third position being cut, however, the Board of Education restored it along with 4.5 other positions due to a $313,164 increase in state aid.

The number of ESL teaching assistants has varied throughout the years, from 16 in 2004-05 to the eight currently employed. It was unclear if any of those positions would be cut next year.

A growing need

Throughout the state, the number of English language learners has increased more than 300,000 over the past few years, said Nancy Villarreal, executive director for the New York State Association for Bilingual Education.

ESL teachers are certified and specifically trained on how to provide not only language instruction but also content, Villarreal said.

They often become the liaison between the family and the district, and help the students' emotional and social development, supporting them in coming to a new country.

ESL teachers differ in salary based on their educational and professional backgrounds, said district Business Official Maureen Albanese. They can vary from the mid-$30,000s to $80,000s, she said.

The cost of ESL teachers for the current school year is about $1.05 million, not including benefits, funded through the district's general fund. Grant and aid money the district receives for its English language learners does not cover the cost of staff, Albanese said.

Funding for the students is included in Foundation Aid from the state. For Utica in the 2012-13 school year, that aid totaled about $72.2 million and is expected to increase to about $72.4 million for 2013-14.

The district also receives a Refugee Impact Grant. Currently in year two of the five-year grant, the money is used for in-class support such as academic coaches, as well as parent outreach, staff development, and orientation, said Carla Percia, district director of grants, contracts and compliance.

This year the grant was $311,250, reimbursing the district for what programming it provided.

The district received a $35,000 grant this year to begin planning a bilingual program, where students would be taught in their home language as well as English, Percia said.

None of the grants pay for staffing ESL teachers.

With nowhere else to cut, the number of ESL teachers will decrease to 40 in fall, a level it hasn't been at since 2009-10 when the district had 39.5 ESL teachers.

If distributed evenly, that makes a teaching ratio of one teacher to every 38 of the district's English language learners.

Attention needed

Cara LaMark teaches several grade levels at General Herkimer Elementary School.

One of two ESL teachers in the school, students come to her class in various size groups.

LaMark said she doesn't mind a larger group for the younger students.

"There's more interaction, they don't clam up," she said smiling. However the older students usually need smaller groups.

It's critically important that English language learners receive individualized attention, said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group.

"If the result of state policy is cuts to ESL teachers, the state is basically making the decision to let those kids fall through the cracks," Easton said.

English language learners might come from refugee camps and might not have had schooling, Villarreal said. "There are so many variations so when you have a classroom that is large, you cannot provide attention to all these needs."

English language learners are at risk for not graduating, Easton said.

This is one of the main reasons the Utica district is identified by the state as a "focus district," meaning the population subgroups are low achieving in math and English Language Arts or could have low graduation rates and are not showing improvement, according to the state Education Department.

The district is required to create a comprehensive improvement plan and must set aside funding for state approved programs and services. There are several other restrictions and requirements of the district in order to get it on the right track to improvement.

It includes a breakdown of seat time the students must have depending on their language proficiency; however restrictions on class size are not included.

"We're going to have a reorganization plan prior to the opening of the next school year when we set up the classes to make sure the teaching staff is spread evenly throughout the district to accommodate the student enrollment," Karam said.

If the district receives more funding, teachers are the first priority, Karam said.

"We would definitely restore the teachers that were laid off, and hire new ones so we could continue to keep the class sizes low for optimal instruction."

School-by-school breakdown

School Immigrants* English language learners

Albany 54 64

Columbus 90 122

Conkling 103 138

Donovan 148 117

Herkimer 59 74

Hughes 97 88

Jefferson 95 89

Jones 24 35

Kennedy 174 80

Kernan 79 87

King 71 62

Proctor 567 447

Watson 90 109

Total 1,651 1,512*

Immigrants include current and former English Language Learner students who were born in another county while English Language Learners include all current ELL students whether born in the U.S., Puerto Rico or abroad.

English Language Learners

Language* Number of students

Karen 775

Bosnian 621

Spanish 602

Burmese 280

Somali 199

Arabic 131

Russian 131

Nepali 60

Ukrainian 29

Total: 1,512 English language learners district-wide, 439 are at Proctor High School.

*Other languages are spoken but the number of students is fewer.

Source: Deborah Wilson-Allam, Utica City School District administrator for Pupil Services and English Language Learner Services

Who We Are FACTS

More than 42 languages are spoken in the Utica City School District.

14,267: Number of refugees the Mohawk Valley Center for Refugees has resettled since 1979.

1,512: Number of English language learners district-wide.

42: the current number of English as a Second Language teachers district-wide.

Since the 2004-05 school year, the district has added 11.5 ESL teachers.

English learners, teachers*

School year English Language Learners English as a Second Language Teachers ESL Teacher Assistants

**Current 1,512 42 8

2011-12 1,562 41 15

2010-11 1,314 40.5 15

2009-10 1,361 39.5 14

2008-09 1,287 36.5 13

2007-08 1,257 34.5 12

2006-07 1,119 33.5 12

2005-06 1,286 32.5 16

2004-05 1,353 30.5 16

The 2013-14 budget includes the elimination of = two English as a Second Language Teachers. The number of ESL teacher assistants being cut is not yet known.

*Does not include those working at the adult learning center

Source: Deborah Wilson-Allam, Utica City School District administrator for pupil services and English language learners.

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