English Language Learners (ELLs) are a fast-growing segment of Connecticut’s public school population, yet state laws prevent these students from receiving the instruction and support they need to be successful in their new country. That was the perspective advanced at a forum sponsored by the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission (LPRAC) held at the State Capitol this week.
LPARC is calling for changes to the state’s laws governing bilingual education and members of the Connecticut General Assembly appear receptive to exploring those changes. Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey plans to convene a task force on ELLs to hear from experts on language acquisition, according to State Representative Juan Candelaria who spoke at the forum.
More than 30,000 public school students in the state are now ELLs, an increase of nearly 50 percent since 2001.
LPRAC — a nonpartisan policy agency within state government — has issued recommendations, including the following, to help close the achievement gap between ELLs and non-ELL students.
- Eliminate the 20-student minimum for school districts to qualify for state bilingual education funding and study the feasibility of having the Regional Educational Service Centers provide bilingual education services for school districts with a low enrollment of ELL students.
- Increase the maximum number of months for bilingual instruction to 60 months.
- Eliminate the one-year delay in bilingual education funding to school districts.
- Focus on programs with proven efficacy such as dual language.
- Allow students to take standardized testing in their native language.
More support for ELLs needed
The state’s demographics have changed and ELLs are no-long concentrated only in large cities. Yet the state requires a district to have 20 students before it can qualify for state bilingual education funding. And if a district meets the 20 student threshold for the first time in 2014-15, it will have to wait until 2015-16 before receiving the funding.
“This is a Connecticut problem, not an English language learner problem,” said Miguel Cardona, the co-chair of the Legislative Achievement Gap Task Force and the performance and evaluation specialist for the Meriden Public Schools.
Keynote speaker Ann Anderberg, an assistant professor of education and specialist in bilingual and bicultural education at Eastern Connecticut State University, said that there is now consensus in research on bilingual education that the longer ELLs have support in their native language, the better they do learning English. “While it may be easy for young children to learn English on a superficial level, it takes a lot longer to be able to compete in a cognitively challenging classroom.”
This is why LPRAC is recommending extending the current 30 month limit on bilingual instruction for students to 60 months.
Candelaria said that the current 30 month rule is failing our students and the citizens of Connecticut. “I’m a product of a bilingual program, and it took a long time for me to learn the English language,” he said. “Research shows it can take up to six years for students to be proficient in English. We’re shortchanging them with only 30 months.”
State Senator Toni Boucher immigrated to Connecticut as a young child and has firsthand experience with the difficulty ELLs face. She said that ELLs’ experience in school “really effects kids for their whole lives.”
Testing adds to ELLs’ challenges
ELLs may be exempt from reading and writing portions of state-wide exams if they have been enrolled at a school in the United States for fewer than 12 calendar months, yet they’re expected to take the math portion of the SBAC, which includes significant reading and writing in English, even if they have only been in the country for a few weeks.
Cardona described a fourth grade girl, a recent immigrant to the United States with very little experience with English, being made to take a math assessment. Her look “symbolized a lot of things for me,” he said. “She was clearly thinking, ‘why are you doing this to me?’ And then we wonder why our kids are disengaged and dropping out.”
Boucher said she is “very concerned about the new testing program,” and that she believes the SBAC should have been phased-in.
Anderberg said she is saddened by the amount of testing that’s become the norm in Connecticut schools. Prior to filling in as an interim principal last school year, Anderberg had not worked in public schools for five years, and in that short amount of time, she said, “everything had changed. We need to listen to our teachers and building level administrators.”