A growing number of Indiana’s public school students are English learners, EL students, where English isn’t their native language. These students receive additional language instruction at school, in addition to taking their normal classes.
Over the last five years, the number of students classified as English Learners in the state grew by ten percent. And the population is not only growing, it is also diversifying.
“Often there’s a misconception that all of our English Learners are Spanish speakers,” says Nathan Williamson, who oversees all English Learner programs in the state for the Department of Education. “We have 259 different languages, including students with additional needs like refugees or recent immigrants. We also have our migrant students who are moving consistently to find temporary seasonal agriculture work.”
Across the country, EL populations are leaving other states, their first homes (often California, Texas or Arizona), and moving to places like Indiana.
Williamson says, compared to ten or 15 years ago, the population in Indiana has grown exponentially, causing the DOE to ramp up their efforts to assist these programs. But what makes an English learner program successful?
“The best practices start with a very well prepared staff,” says Delia Pompa, a Senior Fellow on Education Policy at the Migration Policy Institute. She says many districts that see a sudden influx of English learners often struggle to meet their needs.
“It doesn’t mean they don’t try to serve them well,” Pompa says. “It means that that’s the number one resource a district would need, personnel, who know how to teach these students and have experiences with them.”
And hiring trained personnel takes money, and this is something the Indiana legislature is starting to notice.
During the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers doubled the fund that helps English learner programs around the state from $5 million a year to $10 million a year. Williamson says this increase helps the DOE provide more training sessions and outreach.
But the state budget simultaneously reduced the amount of money given to students that need free/reduced priced lunch, special education services and English learning services– which can include teachers and support staff for EL parents. For districts with large populations of English learners, that cut was significant.
We reported on the effects of this funding change when we visited Goshen Schools, a district with 30 percent of students classified as English learners.
While Goshen is currently an exception in Indiana, there are now more than 57,000 English learners in the state. This is 5.5 percent of Indiana students, and this population continues to grow.
Pompa says a successful EL program needs to have a clear goal for students. And Williamson says, from the state’s perspective, the goal is clear: Get all non-native speakers proficient in English. But he says it can’t happen with just qualified EL teachers, everyone in a district has to believe in the goal.
“The only way we can achieve that goal in a reasonable amount of time is if every member of that school is on board,” Williamson says. “So that takes our general education homeroom teachers, it takes your counselors, it takes your support area staff– not just your EL staff alone. Because we know that in order to develop English you have to have appropriate support and time throughout the school day.”