José Aviles is a soft-spoken, newly minted graduate of Danbury High School. Born in Mexico, he moved to Danbury six years ago without knowing a word of English. Aviles plans to attend Naugatuck Community College in the fall, an anomaly for his native countrymen, who have typically attained a total of nine years of education or less, according to U.S. Census data.

How he is succeeding: he was placed in English Language Learner classes in Danbury as soon as he entered school.

“I went to my classes every day, and most of the time they were in English, which was good, because we learned a lot,” he said. “The classes helped me to move on to transitional classes -- the next level, only in English -- so I could be with other American kids.”

English Language Learner classes are often seen as the answer to the challenges of a growing Spanish-speaking population. With one out of every six students at Danbury High School being classified as an English Language Learner, Aviles went to one of the dozens of schools in Connecticut required to provide this specialized English instruction.

State law requires schools throughout the state to provide a “program of bilingual education” if there are 20 or more students in the school whose dominant language is not English.

Last school year, one out of every five schools in Connecticut -- 244 of the state's 1,150 schools -- had enough non-English speaking students to require them to offer such standalone programs. Most of those schools were in Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven and Waterbury. Statewide, 19,159 students were guaranteed special supports to help them learn English.

Yet bilingual teachers from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade are in critically short supply, according to the state Department of Education, and neither state nor federal grant money for bilingual education has been increased for many years. In addition, thousands of English learners were enrolled in schools where the state law does not require they receive special programs.

Combine that with the huge influx of Spanish-speaking families -- the largest concentration in the state being in Fairfield County -- and it is easy to foresee a future in which it is increasingly difficult for local school systems to provide Spanish-speaking students the same opportunities Aviles had when he arrived from Mexico.

Assessing the numbers

Ten years ago, one of every 27 students in the state was classified as speaking very limited English; today the ratio is one in 17, a net gain of almost 9,000 students.

Spanish is the primary language of 72 percent of those English-language learners in Connecticut public schools, with more than half of those students in kindergarten through fourth grades. But those numbers change daily as immigrants flow into Connecticut at a high rate.

English Language Learners (ELL) In 2013-14, By District See Interactive Map In the 2013-14 school year, Hartford Public Schools had the most ELL students (3,550) but Windham had the highest percentage of ELL students (23.8 percent).

The Latino population increased almost 50 percent in the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Fairfield County showed the highest rate of increase, tallying 166,186 of the state’s more than half a million Latinos. Of the top seven cities in Connecticut with the highest number of individuals who identify as Latino, four are in Fairfield County: Bridgeport, Stamford, Norwalk, and Danbury.

Cities in Fairfield County with the largest numbers of Spanish-speaking students have been trying to address their needs in a variety of ways. In Bridgeport, a charter school, Great Oaks Academy will cater to English Language Learners. When approving four new charter schools this year, (one in Stamford, two in Bridgeport, and one in New Haven), the state Board of Education and the state legislature stipulated that two of them focus on high-need students, such as English Language Learners.

That move angered some local officials, who said the state isn’t giving their schools districts enough money to provide adequate programs to the English language learners they already enroll.

Bridgeport’s interim superintendent, Frances Rabinowitz, in June announced that the city was considering suing the state to stop it from approving any more charter schools in Bridgeport. Although the city subsequently decided against a lawsuit, the city’s school board issued a statement saying the state’s actions were diverting money from the entire Bridgeport student population by requiring “resources for a small number of charter school students.”

“We know the resources are not available,” said Werner Oyanadel, executive director of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, a state agency. “This is not news to us here at the commission, that the need is growing. That is why, in January, we are going to push for a significant amount of increase in the funding component.”

Nathalie works on her homework while her mother and sister prepare dinner. / Photograph by V.M. Williams

Bucking the trend

Despite the fiscal challenges many districts face, Stamford Superintendent Winifred Hamilton added eight bilingual teaching positions to this school year’s budget.

“We’re hiring,” she said during an interview before the start of the school year. “Many districts have had to reduce staff, but from fiscal efficiencies and a very strong grants program, I will guarantee to you that we will have no students that we have identified who will not be supported.”

Stamford schools are accommodating 2,400 students in English Language Learner programs, out of a total of 17,000 students in its school system. Hamilton is looking at an increase of 2,000 students throughout the Stamford school system this year. “I think the fact that Stamford is a vibrant city, with jobs and growth and new construction, has families moving in. They have relatives here and employment.”

That means, for Hamilton, more English Language Learners, students with special needs, and students who require reduced-price lunch programs. The state’s latest figures show that 79 percent of English Language Learners were eligible for either free or reduced-price meals.

Yet grant money from the state specifically for bilingual education has stood still for many years at $1.9 million statewide. The federal government has not increased its contribution either: $4,540,480.

English Language Learner (ELL) Teachers And Students In Connecticut, 2002–12 See Interactive Graph From 2002 to 2012, the number of students who were English-languager learners increased in Connecticut, but the number of ELL teachers decreased. / By Alvin Chang

The challenge of Mexican immigration

Many of the English Language Learners who move to Stamford, Danbury, and other high-Latino-population cities in Connecticut hail from Mexico. In Aviles’s case, he was particularly lucky; according to the international Migration Policy Institute, children from Mexican immigrant families score well below national norms.

In 2012, Mexican-born immigrants made up about 28 percent of the almost 41 million foreign-born individuals in the United States, establishing themselves as the largest immigrant group in the country, according to the institute.

When those Mexican immigrants enter the United States, they typically, as Aviles’s own experience proved, do not speak English.

“When I arrived, I couldn’t understand what was going on and what was happening, and my classes made a difference,” Aviles said. “Now I know what people are saying to me, and I know how to respond.”

State law requires bilingual instruction be provided to students like Aviles for at least 30 months, and if students are still unable to pass English mastery tests, the district is required to provide language transition support services.

State law identifies English as the medium for instruction in public schools and bilingual instruction is meant to help students use English and decrease use of their native language.

The Federal Civil Rights Act also requires an effective alternative language program be provided to students not yet able to participate in the regular classroom.

The ongoing debate

In a comprehensive study done by the Bridgeport Business Council, English proficiency was linked to higher earning and tax contributions, lower welfare dependency, and greater educational and economic advancement.

According to the study, “Research has confirmed for years that fluency in the English language is the common denominator of success for immigrant workers in the U.S. job market,. Due to this lack of English fluency, more than half of all workers from Mexico and Central America are employed in occupations that require little formal education: construction and extraction; building and grounds cleaning and maintenance; and restaurant/fast food services.

It’s clear that given the impact of the aging U.S. population, including the Baby Boomer generation’s potential exit from the labor force, the major growth in the U.S. labor force will come from the immigrant population between now and 2050.”

Zeroing in on solutions

Money and teachers will make the difference, educators say. The Census Bureau estimates that by 2030, 40 percent of students in the United States will be growing up in non-English-speaking homes.

Stamford has budgeted for an increase in professional development regarding English Language Learners for all its teachers. The University of Connecticut is working to increase the number of teachers who are trained in bilingual education and TESOL, an acronym for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, with a number of programs.

The challenge for teachers who have already earned their certification, said Elizabeth Howard, an associate professor of bilingual education at UConn, is the requirement for more coursework to earn the TESOL or bilingual certification.

“My perception is the shortage in Connecticut is due at least in part to the fact that you can’t get a primary certification in TESOL or bilingual education,” she said. “So this means that teachers need to find the time and the money to return for more coursework to get this additional endorsement, and this can be difficult, especially as people get older and begin to take on additional life responsibilities.”

Equipped with a strong knowledge of his adopted language, Aviles took a class at Danbury High to earn a certificate as a certified nursing assistant, a job he hopes to land while attending Naugatuck Community College.

He is grateful, he said, for the classes, and the scholarship from the Latino Fund, which made his path to college possible. “I use my Spanish in my home, and I use my English outside, in the world around me,” he said. “The help I received made such a difference.”

More information

Those interested in seeking teaching positions in Connecticut may visit http://www.ctohe.org/edinfo/pdfs/teach.pdf. Shortage areas are listed lower in the pdf.

Find more information on UConn’s Project Prepare ELLS at http://spotlight.education.uconn.edu/2010/preparing-new-teachers-ell/ For degrees in bilingual and TESOL education offered by UConn, visit http://bilingual.education.uconn.edu/

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Copyright c. 2014 The Connecticut Mirror/The Connecticut News Project, Inc.

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