As immigration reshapes Indy, schools struggle to keep up

April 20, 2015

When Mariam Khan, born in Pakistan, was studying to teach English as a new language, she imagined herself working overseas, teaching English to children in other countries.

Just more than a month into her first job, Khan does, indeed, instruct children from all over the world, but she does it from right here in Indianapolis at School 79 on the city’s west side.

Khan’s experience with the steep challenge of trying to help non-native English speaking students become quickly proficient enough at English so they can learn other subjects, pass state tests and prepare for a life in the United States is increasingly common across central Indiana.

These are the early days of Khan’s first job—she graduated from IUPUI in December and started at the school about a month later—but already she has had to improvise. The two languages she knows fluently, Pakistan’s Urdu and India’s Hindi languages—are of no use. The 730 students who attend School 79 speak dozens of languages, but none are the ones she knows.

“My hardest group is first-graders,” she said. “They speak so many languages and no English. Getting used to the environment is hard for them.”

Immigration is rapidly changing Indianapolis with major effects on schools.

Since 2006, two-thirds of Indiana schools saw an increase in the percentage of students learning English as a new language, according to demographic data for schools that reported. Marion County is the epicenter of that trend.

Of the 25 schools in the state that have seen jumps of at least 20 percentage points of English language learners since 2006, 14 of them are in Marion County, including five schools each in Indianapolis Public Schools and Perry Township.

Since 2001, the number of English language learners attending Marion County school districts has jumped by more than 200 percent to about 13,000. If all those students were in one school district, it would be bigger than Warren Township, which ranks fifth-largest of the city’s 11 school districts.

But at the same time schools have grappled with the fast-growing need to help children learn English, the state has cut the funding that supports those programs by more than half. That’s contributed to a difficult struggle for schools to effectively serve those children and raised questions about the fairness of an accountability system that penalizes some of them without consideration for the difficult challenge they face.

Schools are quickly learning they need to do things differently.

Perry Township, for example, has had to adapt to serve a fast-growing community of Burmese refugees. IPS has long served a large number of Hispanic students with mixed success. But with the number of students speaking a different language at home—and not just Spanish—growing fast, district officials are embarking on an effort to rethink their  approach to teaching them.

There is no more dramatic example in the state of swift growth of children learning English than IPS School 79. It also happens to be Indiana’s most successful school when it comes to helping those children pass state tests.

Teaching differently for better results

By the time she was named School 79’s principal in 2005, Joyce Akridge knew her neighborhood was changing.

She had seen it before.

When Akridge started her teaching career at School 79 more than 40 years ago, she moved to what was then a mostly white neighborhood and never left. Her own children attended the school—sometimes they were among just a few black faces in what was then a mostly white school.

When she returned as principal, the school had shifted to a mostly black student body, but there were hardly any students learning English—less than 3 percent of the school. She didn’t have any specialists in language learning assigned to the school.

But everything was about to change again—and fast.

By the end of her second year, 30 percent of the students needed to learn to speak English, and Akridge knew she needed help. Along with a core group of teachers, she visited other schools with large numbers of English language learners and started classwork at IUPUI that led to a certification as as a specialist in teaching children to learn English.

She is still the only IPS principal with that credential.

“I didn’t see it as a problem,” she said. “I saw it as a group of students I wanted to reach. If you give people even four or five good best practices they can use, they will see progress and will want to learn more things they can do for the students.”

Akridge and her team began to employ a series of small techniques to help children learn English. On example: They labeled lots of items in the classroom with their English names on Post-It notes, such as chairs, tables and the board. Akridge recognized learning a new language was a huge task that required extra time, so she tried to find ways to squeeze in more learning. Even in the lunchroom.

After students get their food and start eating, Akridge appears most days for what seems like play time when the principal takes a microphone and leads them in fun activities like clapping and call-and-response. But really it’s stealth learning. The clapping is a mini-lesson in pattern recognition. The questions are about vocabulary words.

“When I was going to school, learning was a water hose,” she said. “You just spray, and everybody was expected to get in the stream and learn. Now it’s an oscillating spray. Some children need to be watered a little more.”

Back in 2006, the school was struggling—it had been rated an F for two years. But as the school has swelled with language learners—they now make up more than half the school—it’s actually seen its state test scores rise. This is School 79’s fifth straight year rated an A by the state.

But it doesn’t come easy.

For example, Khan teaches a special class for “newcomers:” immigrants who arrive at the school mid-year knowing little or no English. On a recent Friday morning, she instructed six first-graders in the English alphabet and simple words like “we,” “the” and “am” for 90 minutes. They came from six different countries on three continents: Africa, South America and Asia.

“I’ve never worked with so many different students from so many places,” Khan said. “You don’t know what they are saying. You have to start from the bottom with alphabet and phonics.”

The newcomers class is one of many innovations Akridge and her staff have instituted to try to help immigrant students adapt to life in the U.S. A handful of techniques used by schools that have had success with English language learners—from sophisticated ideas like targeted use of test data to the most simple acts like smiling at the children—seem to help.

But not every school adapts as well as School 79 has.

Are English learners ‘slipping through the cracks’?

For many schools, floods of immigrant children speaking an array of languages have left children confused, teachers frustrated, test scores falling and even labeled some traditionally high-scoring schools with F grades.

Of the 25 Indiana schools with the biggest jumps in the percentage of students learning English since 2006, 13 of them have either seen their A-to-F grades drop or stagnate as that percentage has grown.

Schools with large numbers of students learning English face a triple challenge: They must help those students learn to speak and write English well, adapt to a new culture as they gradually begin to feel more like Americans and prepare academically for college or careers.

But advocates for immigrant communities fear non-native English speakers are slipping through the cracks.

Children learning English as a new language have been pushed over the last decade to adapt more quickly and are expected to take ISTEP sooner—in many cases, before they have learned enough language to really understand what’s being asked of them. Indiana requires all English language learners to take the ISTEP math test no matter how recently they have arrived from their home countries. They get a one-year reprieve before they have to take the English test.

For many of them, that’s simply not enough time to learn English well enough for the exams to truly measure what they know, Akridge said.

“I think we need to acknowledge what is truth: It takes three to five years to learn a language,” she said.

State officials say their hands are tied by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required an overhaul of how Indiana tested English language learners in 2007 and resulted in the stricter testing timelines.

The federal law was designed, in part, to incentivize schools to spend more time and attention on children at risk for failure. Schools have responded to the pressure to get those students to pass tests by assigning more language specialists.

Washington Township’s Nora Elementary School, also ranked among the top 25 schools in the state for growth of it English language learner enrollment, now has three teachers of English as a new language and five aides to supplement classroom learning for its 705 students. That’s twice as many as the school had five years ago. School 79 has a staff of nine teachers and aides who specialize in teaching English as a new language for is 734 students.

But that costs money, which hasn’t accompanied the federal and state mandates.

As immigration grew, funding for English learning shrunk

In the case of Indiana, in fact, the quite the opposite has occurred: the Legislature has slashed extra aid to support English language learning programs at the very moment when schools are struggling with explosive growth of children who need them.

The state currently pays just $87 per student in extra aid to support English language learners, down from about twice as much a decade ago. It simply isn’t enough money to support the titanic effort of schools like School 79 or Nora Elementary School, educators say.

The schools must not only teach children English plus their other subjects, they also must help their students adapt to the bewildering change of moving to America.

Sometimes, unwavering requirements—like those for testing—can get in the way.

Shawn Schlepp, a fifth grade teacher at Nora, recalls how giving one of her students the ISTEP math test just days after moving to the U.S. eroded a tentative trust the two had begun to build.

“She was sitting at this table in this room, and she picked out the numbers from the first problem and wrote them down on a piece of paper,” Schlepp recalled. “She looked at me and gestured. She just wanted to know what to do. Add? Subtract? But I wasn’t allowed to tell her.”

After a few minutes, the girl began to cry, Schlepp said. This heartwrenching scene is replayed many times at schools with lots of immigrant students.

But there is hope even in those difficult moments, as a School 79 story from Akridge demonstrates.

It was a French-speaking student from Africa who also was plopped in front of the ISTEP math test on his very first day at School 79, Akridge recalled. He also quickly became frustrated and dissolved into tears.

But soon after, Akridge said, the boy began to adapt with stunning quickness to his new country, his new school and learning a new language.

“I could tell he was very bright,” she said.

The quality of his classroom work skyrocketed as he gained confidence. By the time he took ISTEP the next year, he was on the honor roll. He passed.

Teachers must always remember that English language learners bring with them valuable experiences far different than the average American student that can be assets, not only in their own lives but for their school to learn from.

“They come with cultural capital,” she said. “The experience from their countries can transfer to the learning here in the U.S.”


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