English language learners impact Mesa school
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 21, 2007


Josh Kelley  


The number of students classified as English language learners in Mesa Public Schools has more than tripled over the last decade, impacting the way schools hire staff, train teachers and instruct students.

The number of English learners has climbed from 2,913 eight years ago to an estimated 9,109 this year, a rise of 213percent.

At the same time, the school district's overall enrollment has slipped the last two years. This means the percentage of students who are English learners is growing at an even faster rate than ELL enrollment.

For each student classified ELL under state law, as deemed by a language-proficiency test, the district gets about $400 in state funding. Attorneys are continuing to battle in federal court over whether the state provides adequate funding for the students. This year in Mesa, ELL enrollment is up by about 670, or 8percent, over last year.

Irene Frklich, director of the district's English Language Acquisition Department, said this year's rise is due to more immigrants moving into Mesa and a new state test used to determine English proficiency that is designating more students as English learners.

Some educators say fewer students are testing proficient, while others say their numbers are up, said John Stollar, associate superintendent for accountability with the state Department of Education.

Statistics won't be available until the end of the year. This year about 135,000 students statewide are labeled English learners.

In response to Mesa's rise in English learners, Frklich said teachers have undergone professional development and provide more differentiated instruction to students. Schools must hire additional staff to work with students and administer the English proficiency test.

To pay for more staff and training, the district uses extra funding on top of the $400 per English learner allocated by the state, Frklich said.

Eisenhower Elementary Principal Patricia Estes said it's a challenge to keep qualified bilingual staff that administer the proficiency test, keep documentation on English learners, determine proficiency levels and monitor students after they are no longer English learners. Salaries are low, and private industry can pay more, Estes said.

Up to 35percent of Eisenhower's roughly 770 students are English learners in a given year, with a much higher percentage in lower grades, including incoming kindergartners who must be tested for language proficiency.

"It's a real crunch at the beginning of the year because we have a deadline to get that administered," Estes said.

Every teacher in her school is trained to teach English learners, who are spread across classrooms.

"You want a good mix," she said. "You don't want to stick all the Spanish-speaking students in one because they won't learn as quickly."

$10 million delay frustrating

The state Department of Education has $10million allocated by the Legislature that must be given to school districts for teaching English learners. The money, which supplements state dollars, has yet to be distributed.

The delay has frustrated Mesa teachers, who want to use the compensatory education money to help their students, said Irene Frklich, Mesa Public Schools' director of English Language Acquisition. In past years the money also had been delayed, Frklich said. This year, the funding must go toward teaching English, not helping students perform better on the AIMS test as it has in the past.

Irene Moreno, deputy associate superintendent over English acquisition for the state Department of Education, said the funding is tied up as the department attempts to write application forms for districts to apply for the money. An ELL taskforce must approve the forms and has sent them back for revision several times. She acknowledged school districts are frustrated.

-Josh Kelley