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

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.”