Lost in Translation

After funding boost, schools consider how to better help English language learners

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Kindergartners Ivania, left, and Jackie work on reading and writing at Enlace Academy.

In the wake of a series of stories about English language learning in Indianapolis — jointly published last month by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media — key Indiana policymakers are reconsidering how children who need language help are served.

The series, Lost In Translation, documented the difficulties faced by a fast-growing population of immigrant students in Indiana, some of whom come from vastly different cultures, to learn English, academic subjects and the American way of life all at once.

The series showed that at the same time the number of English language learners in Indianapolis had nearly tripled over 15 years, state funding to support programs to help them had been cut in half.

Schools with large and growing numbers of students learning English as a new language sometimes struggle to find effective teaching strategies and manage difficult mandates, such as those that can require some immigrant children to take tests in English just days after arriving in the country.

The conversation about how Indiana schools can better manage their immigration challenges continues Wednesday when Chalkbeat, the Star and WFYI will host a panel discussion at the Central Library at 6 p.m.

But at least one change English language learning advocates have called for — more funding —  is now on the way.

The state legislature last week made a late-breaking decision to change the way it will calculate funding for English language learning assistance in the next two-year budget, which starts this summer.

The legislature did two things. First, it more than doubled the non-English speaking grant program to about $200 per student, up from $87 per student today. Second, lawmakers added a first-of-its-kind calculation into the state school funding formula that will give even more aid to school districts with the biggest enrollments of English language learners: those where at least 25 percent of students enrolled need language learning assistance.

“It is stories like this that get the work done, that help people to build a deeper understanding and get action taken,” said Amber Walters, principal of one of the schools featured in the series, Washington Township’s Nora Elementary School. “It is empowering to know that the story was heard and things will be changing so that we can better meet these students needs.”

For now, few districts have large enough shares of English language learners to qualify for the extra money from the formula. Even Perry Township, with its fast-growing immigrant population, is only at 19 percent of students learning to speak English. But advocates said the inclusion in the funding formula was a good precedent for expanded future funding. Experts quoted in the series said most states support English language learning through their state funding formulas, which can be more stable than a grant program.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the series was important to helping raise awareness among lawmakers about the growing need for special education services and convince them to add extra aid.

“I think we’re all more reconciled to the point that this is really an amazing issue,” he said. “We have all these other languages now.”

Doubling the grant money for non-English speaking students to more than $10 million was a big boost, said Charlie Geier, who oversees those programs for the Indiana Department of Education, but so was adding it to the school funding formula.

“It’s important that they did both of those,” Geier said. “That impacts every single district.”

Support for extra funding for English language learners was bipartisan.

“I’m glad we’re devoting more resources,” said Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, the Democratic leader in the Senate. “That’s something we’ve advocated for for a long time. This is about Indiana becoming a more welcoming state.”

Gov. Mike Pence said he, too, favored the idea of more funding.

“In our discussions over the budget there was a recognition that for many school districts that have a great number of students that are English language learners that there were unique challenges there,” he said. “I fully supported making additional resources available.”

Geier said it’s now up to schools to spend the new money wisely.

“The fact that the legislature addressed this is very important, but we still have a long way to go,” he said. “They need to use those dollars for unmet needs, to go above and beyond what they are doing now to provide higher quality programs.”

Geier said schools should spend the extra money where they have the greatest need, such as teacher training, hiring more language learning specialists or to find new ways to connect with families and the community.

“They certainly all have different challenges,” he said. “Continuing the conversation is really important.”

Lost in Translation

10 inspiring minutes on education, freedom and the American dream

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Elly Mawi expressed her gratitude for her teachers at Chalkbeat and WFYI's recent Conversation about Education focused on English language learners.

Chalkbeat’s recent series, Lost In Translation, jointly published with the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media, aimed to shed light on the challenges schools face to help English language learners, especially those newly arrived from other countries, thrive.

But helping immigrant children at school also requires understanding their lives before coming to the United States and their broader experiences as newcomers to Indiana.

For Indianapolis, one of the biggest and fastest-growing immigrant student groups is children from Burma.

Last week, Chalkbeat brought together four people who shared their stories in the series for a panel discussion at the Central Library. For the full conversation, go here. But, thanks to WFYI, you can now view a 10-minute highlight video (below).

Be prepared to be moved.

Two of the panelists, May Oo Mutraw and and Elly Mawi, spoke passionately about the hardships Burmese families have in Indiana.

Most of them, Mutraw said, were fleeing a 66-year civil war that upended their lives.

“They lived literally in the war zone, said Mutraw, founder of Indianapolis’ Burmese Community Center for Education. “Their villages were burned down. They fled into the forest.”

Schooling, she said, was also a casualty.

“We are talking about a generation who did not get to go to school — the whole generation,” she said.

But in Indiana, with the help of public schools, they had an opportunity for a much better future. They understand the American dream.

“I personally always believed that through education we can liberate ourselves,” Mutraw said. “Education, for me and for my family, is a practice of freedom.”

Mawi, a top student graduating this year from Perry Township’s Southport High School, once sat on a dirt floor to learn from volunteer teachers in a refugee camp in Malaysia, said even in her community people don’t realize what many Burmese children have been through.

“We come here in the first place because we are at the line of life and death,” she said. “It’s whether you die or if you fight and you escape.”

Mawi praised Southport as a great place for English language learners and Perry Township as welcoming. But still, even there, not everyone understands how common her story is.

“A lot of times, people think the reason we come here is because of greed,” she said. “We get a lot of misunderstanding for that.”

Near the end of the event, Mawi turned to the audience to praise her teachers, several of whom were in the audience.

Some of them were moved to tears.

“This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, but not just this every day,” she said. “If you are a teacher sitting here tonight, or watching on live stream, thank you for what you have done.”

Mawi then addressed English as a new language teachers directly.

“As an ENL student … we thank you,” she said. “We love you. You make a difference. You might not get enough praise or enough pay or enough credit for what you have done. But you are making a difference every day in our lives.”

Teachers who have more challenges in the classroom, like helping kids learn to speak English, should be judged less harshly if test scores take time to catch up to their peers, she said.

“You are the unsung heroes of our society and community,” Mawi said, turning back toward the teachers. “We love you and thank you.”

Lost in Translation

Video: Advocates for English learners discuss challenges of teaching immigrant students

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Charlie Geier of the Indiana Department of Education and Southport High School Student Elly Mawi speak on a panel hosted by Chalkbeat and WFYI at the Indianapolis Public Library.

Helping English language learners adapt to school in the U.S. isn’t simply the responsibility of specially trained teachers — or at least it shouldn’t be — experts argued Thursday.

At a panel discussion organized by Chalkbeat, WFYI and the Indianapolis Star at the Indianapolis Public Library Wednesday, key figures from a recent series of stories about English language learning in Indiana called “Lost in Translation” discussed the challenges that immigrant students face and ideas for how they can be better served in the future. The series was a joint effort of Chalkbeat, the Star and WFYI Public Media.

“I think what schools are struggling with is who owns these students,” said said Charlie Geier, who oversees English language learning programs for the Indiana Department of Education. “The answer is everybody owns these students. (Learning English) is just not something that happens in isolation for 15 minutes a day or 30 minutes a day.”

Along with Geier, the panel included Southport High School student Elly Mawi; May Oo Mutraw, founder of the Burmese Community Center for Education; and Eddie Rangel, an Indianapolis Public Schools teacher.

The speakers said schools need to take advantage of increased state funding, approved by the legislature in the wake of the series.

Video from the event is now available thanks to WFYI. If the video doesn’t play above, click here to watch it. You can find a shorter 10-minute version below.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the American Graduate Project also helped sponsor the event.