The basics of English language learning: Schools struggle to adapt

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)
Jel Lu Too, a Burmese war refugee, was a 15-year-old living in a camp in Thailand until his family was uprooted earlier this year and he was placed in the seventh grade at Indianapolis’ Northwest High School.

He couldn’t read, write or speak English, yet during his first week of school, he was mandated to take Indiana’s state test because of state and federal rules.

About 56,000 English language learners living here face similar challenges as they transition to life in Indiana, including an expectation that they pass state tests just like their peers who have grown up with the English language. Helping them adapt to life and school in the U.S., while also getting them to pass tests, is a challenge for schools and teachers that is only growing. The number of English learners has swelled by nearly 70 percent in Indiana over the last eight years. Marion County has experienced a more than 200 percent growth in English learners since 2001 to about 13,000.

The changes have meant new hurdles for Indiana schools and teachers. Immigrant students often come to them with limited formal school, or interruptions since they were last in school. In many cases, their parents also don’t speak English.

At the same time the number of English language learners grew dramatically, funding per student to support programs to help them fell, making the job even tougher.

But in 2015, Indiana legislators more than doubled the funding for English language learning programs. Key lawmakers said their understanding of the problem was aided by a series of stories called “Lost in Translation” published in April as part of a joint project by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media.

Schools are stretched as the number of English language learners grows
The rapid growth of English learners has been a difficult adjustment for schools where the changes have happened quickly.

Indianapolis is at the center of this phenomenon, with 14 of the 25 schools in the state that have seen jumps of at least 20 percentage points of English learners since 2006 located in Marion County.

At Nora Elementary in Washington Township, the challenge seemed overwhelming to some teachers as they watched their school’s population rapidly change with an influx of immigrant students. The school had once received consecutive A letter grades from the state for its high student test score performance until its state letter grade plummeted to an F in 2011.

Today, 48 percent of Nora’s students are English learners, up from about 30 percent in 2005. As teachers learned to adapt to the new identity of the school, test scores began to rise, raising its grade to a C.

“Once you get into a groove, they grow,” said Nora Elementary school teacher Shawn Schlepp. “That’s great, but when you see them grow you have to move them again.”

Schools have tried to use teacher training to learn strategies to better help English learners. Some educators have gone back to college as their districts have grown, getting special certifications to teach English learners. Others are learning on the job.

Some techniques seem simple, like speaking more slowly and pronouncing words more clearly and deliberately. Others are more advanced, like changing lessons to get across the same concept or idea with more straightforward or tailored examples.

Improving teaching alone often doesn’t relieve all the stresses on English language learners: Students and teachers say English learners struggle with being accepted by their peers. Some students in Indianapolis said they were frequently bullied because of their heritages. Schools also recognized the need to do a better job of actively welcoming English learners.

“That’s one that we probably need to do a better job of, honestly,” said Jessica Feeser, who coordinates Indianapolis Public Schools’ programs for English learners.

IPS, which is redesigning its programs for English learners, has struggled to connect with parents who don’t speak English.

State, federal expectations cause challenges

At the same time immigration has rapidly changed Indianapolis schools, they’re also being held to much stricter state and federal requirements. That’s why Jel Lu Too was confronted with a standardized test he couldn’t read during his first week in an American school.

In 2006, federal authorities put Indiana and several other states on notice for not having a high enough expectations for English learners. At the time, schools could wait three years before requiring English learners take ISTEP. They were instead given an alternative exam and teachers could use portfolios to showcase students met standards.

After the U.S. Department of Education said Indiana’s system wasn’t adhering to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, it simply began giving all students the same tests.

“Fairness isn’t a word that the federal government uses,” said Indiana’s testing director, Michele Walker. “They just say, ‘These are the requirements.’ It’s up to us to provide supports.”

Schools have found a controversial workaround to help English learners who can’t pass state tests graduate high school.

Students can graduate even if they don’t pass the state’s required 10th-grade English exam and a ninth-grade algebra test using waivers. To earn a waiver, students have to have earned at least a C in the subject, as well as get recommendations from their teacher and principal.

But in recent years lawmakers have urged school districts to curtail this practice, as some schools were using waivers to boost graduation rates.

All but two of the 54 students who earned waivers last year at Perry Township’s Southport High School were English learners. But Southport Principal Barbara Brouwer defended the practice.

“I cannot, in my heart of hearts, deny a kid a diploma because language was their barrier when they arrived and they can’t pass a state assessment,” Brouwer said. “There has to be some common sense. You have to consider where people start.”

Township, charter innovations seek to improve instruction

Some educators are taking on the challenge of serving more English learners by creating new programs that seek to capitalize on students’ potential to be dual-language speakers.

In Lawrence Township, a language immersion program at Forest Glen Elementary serves native Spanish speakers who are learning English as well as native-English speakers who want to learn Spanish. The program, which serves more than 650 kids, is a model for the state, which recently approved a grant program for schools who develop language immersion programs.

And a dual-language charter school that seeks to teach Indianapolis students for half the day in Spanish and half the day in English was recently approved by the Indiana State Charter Board.

Former Pike Township principal Mariama Carson, whose charter school will be called Global Preparatory Academy, said she wants half the students to be aimed at poor families including about half who are speak English at home and half who native Spanish speakers.

Carson said learning is often frustrating for English learners, but she wants them to see their potential as an asset.

“This is bigger than a second language,” Carson told WFYI. “It is the kind of instruction students have through a second language. I think that kind of opportunity is what many of my children (at Pike Township) needed but that is not the structure of a traditional, education program.”

Other Indianapolis charter schools are also focused on English learners.

At Enlace Academy on the city’s West side, 55 percent of the students are English learners. The students there are taught in a “blended learning” model. Students spend part of their time learning on computer programs, and the other half in small groups with teachers who reinforce the lessons and try to give students more one-on-one attention. There are two teachers per classroom.

Another charter school, Christel House Academy South, has nearly 25 percent of its students who are still learning English. The school uses a practice called “intervention,” which is focused on giving more one-on-one teaching and extra learning time to struggling students.

The school has had success using that strategy, boasting an 18-percentage point gain in 2012 on the number of English learners who passed both the English and math portions of the state ISTEP test than the state average for English learners.

Legislators respond to challenge with more aid

In response to the challenges, the Indiana state legislature made a last-minute decision in April to change the way it will fund schools for English language learners.

Lawmakers more than doubled the amount of money available to English learners to $22 million over the next two years. They also added a provision in the calculation for state poverty aid that gives extra money to districts with more than 25 percent of English learners in their total population. Few districts will qualify for that extra aid right away.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said a series of stories about the struggles and growth of English language learners in Indiana helped elevate the issue among lawmakers.

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

Charlie Geier, who runs the English learners program at the Indiana Department of Education, implored schools to use the new money to expand their services, and it seems some have embraced that message.

Districts with large numbers of students learning English as a new language, like Indianapolis Public Schools and Washington Township Schools, have moved to quickly expand their programs to add staff and support more services to students.

—Updated December 2015