Influx of Hispanic students taxes schools
The Associated Press
March 12, 2004
By Bill Draper

GARDEN CITY -- Between morning classes, second-graders stream through the halls of Jennie Wilson Elementary School, some hand in hand, others waving shyly at Principal Maurine Kozol. A young Hispanic girl steps out of line to give Kozol a hug.

The pupils are in the district's dual-language program, intended to make both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking children bilingual by fourth grade.

More than 300 miles to the northeast, legislators in Topeka are grappling with decisions on education funding, and spending on bilingual programs is a key issue.

Bilingual education was a prominent matter as well in a December ruling by a Shawnee County judge holding the state's school finance formula unconstitutional.

Judge Terry Bullock concluded that, like the $2.6 billion the state sends annually to school districts, the amount it spends for bilingual programs -- $9.4 million -- is inadequate to meet the needs of all Kansas children.

And those needs are growing. Kansas' Hispanic population has risen dramatically, especially in the past decade.

Hispanic children now outnumber white children nearly 2-to-1 in the three biggest districts of southwest Kansas, according to the Kansas State Department of Education. Schools are responding with offerings like the program at Jennie Wilson Elementary.

"When I first started in school, they didn't have the support for students like we have now," said Juana Perkins, who is the Garden City school district's migrant coordinator and a city commissioner. She had her first formal schooling in 1971, when she came at age 10 to Garden City.

Southwest Kansas educators said bilingual programs in their schools help bridge a performance gap between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students. State test scores indicate Hispanic students are improving.

For example, in Garden City, 62.4 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders were proficient or better in math in 2002, and in 2003 that number grew to 73.4 percent. In Dodge City, reading proficiency among Hispanic fourth-graders rose to 58.9 percent in 2003 from 45 percent in 2002.

Garden City is testing a pilot program in which students take a computerized version of the state math test while listening to the questions in Spanish on headphones. Instructors credit that approach for improving math scores by more than 10 percent in one year.

Similar innovations are needed in other areas to help bring students up to national standards, educators said. But the programs can be expensive, and there is a shortage of bilingual teachers.

"Our biggest challenge is finding qualified teachers," said Julie Ford, assistant superintendent in Garden City, where nearly 59 percent of the student population is Hispanic.

Many of the programs are funded through federal grants, but that money is starting to dry up, administrators said. And with no extra money in the state's coffers to replace federal funds, Dodge City schools superintendent Gloria Davis and others wonder how they will be able to continue programs that appear to be working.

"Budget-wise, it's very difficult, but what we have determined is that students who make up a majority of the district are speaking different languages," Davis said.

Juana Perkins said some of the issues that educators face with Hispanic students haven't changed in the three decades since she came to Garden City. Hispanic families arriving from outside the United States tend to be larger than those that have been in the area for a generation or more, for instance.

But one major difference is that the Hispanic population was much smaller 30 years ago, Perkins recalled.

"I was teased a lot because I was different," she said. "When we were first here, you didn't see that many Hispanics in the community or here in our school district."

The past decade has seen especially high growth in the Hispanic population. Hispanics now account for 60 percent of the Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal school districts combined, compared to about 36 percent in 1994-95.

Statewide, the Hispanic population in Kansas schools has increased by nearly 25,000 in the past 10 years, and the white student population has declined by a similar amount.

Jesus Bernal, who has taught Spanish at Garden City High School for 15 years, said getting Hispanic students involved in school activities has become a priority for the district.

"We're still working on trying to get a lot of Latinos to feel that they belong as part of the system," said Bernal, who testified before the Legislature this year as a recipient of the Milken Family Foundation national educator award.

Meanwhile, administrators worry about money for bilingual education programs.

Ford, the Garden City assistant superintendent, said the district doesn't know yet whether a $148,000 federal grant that pays for the dual-language program will be renewed.

But she is fairly sure a $2 million federal grant for Project Effort, an after-school program in several elementary schools, won't be. That money came to Garden City because of its high Hispanic population.

In Dodge City, superintendent Davis said the district has a goal of getting all teachers certified in English as a Second Language instruction. The district pays half the cost for instructors to become ESL-certified, with the stipulation that they stay in the district at least one year after gaining certification.

And while the Garden City district has increased its bilingual opportunities and added Hispanic instructors, "We need a lot more administrators, teachers and counselors who better represent our population," Bernal said.

"The kids don't have many role models out there in the profession," he said. "We need to target those positions."

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