ESL program faces difficult mandate
Federal No Child Left Behind legislation has raised the stakes in De Soto USD 232's effort to educate its non-English speaking students.
NCLB requires every school's students to make annual yearly progress whether they can speak English or not.
Although there are some testing accommodations for children who don't speak English, students in USD 232's English as Second Language program must take the same tests -- and make the same annual yearly progress -- as other students.
"There is no accounting for language level," district ESL program coordinator Debbie Taylor said. "So if a child moves in from another country on Monday and the state assessments are Tuesday, they are required to be given the state assessment."
However, there are exceptions on the writing test. Students may be exempt if they have not lived in the United States for at least a year.
During the past several years, ESL students have grown from about 30 to more than 100 district-wide.
"There's been quite a lot of growth," Taylor said. "Not only in the population here in De Soto but also on the east end of our district."
Although most of the ESL students' native language is Spanish, Taylor said native languages were becoming more diverse, especially in the Shawnee area. Now there are students from Asia, including India, and Africa who speak languages with names like Punjabi, Amhahic, Tagalog and Telugu.
At its April 19 meeting, the Board of Education approved making Riverview Elementary a center school for the ESL program in Shawnee. The change will help localize staff and materials, making it easier to tailor to students' individual needs, Taylor said.
The Shawnee area numbers still fall well short of those on the westside and Starside Elementary. Starside is currently home to about 65 of about 110 ESL students in the district.
Although the federal legislation mandated students new to the English language perform as well as their peers, it's up to schools to develop programs in-house that will teach English, a first step in preparing for general testing.
"We have the latitude to create the program that works best for our students," USD 232 Superintendent Zoellner said.
Zoellner added this was an area where state funding was needed in order to keep up.
The ESL program monitors student progress on its own. Teachers administer language assessments each spring to determine a starting point, ESL teacher Gerrie Meyer said.
The ESL program is taking steps to improve English-learning and, consequently, test scores. Taylor said the school started a pre-school program for ESL and at-risk students who may need a head start.
"That's one way that we're trying to be proactive in getting early intervention," she said.
Students enter the district at many different levels of English skills, and Taylor said it was helpful to be able to group them not only by grade level but by proficiency.
"That's one of the challenges that comes with any special program," she said. "The needs of the children are always very diverse."
Taylor said students worked extra hard to overcome language barriers that were a stumbling block for other academic performance.
"The kids are great," she said. "They're very appreciative, they're hard workers and they really want to learn.