For students who do not speak English well, school can be a lesson in fear and isolation.
“They can feel no one cares about them,” says David Greene, Weber State University’s dean of education. “That’s why it’s so important for educators to understand what’s going on during this language-transition period. We have to make schools feel comfortable for these kids.”
Utah, with its growing population of immigrants, lags in providing an optimum learning opportunity for students with limited or no English skills. But Greene says the state has a “window of opportunity” to improve.
To that end, Weber State, local school districts and the Utah State Office of Education have organized the state’s first comprehensive conference on multicultural and multilingual education.
Next week’s two-day conference, Success for All Students, is “sold out,” with some 500 teachers and education officials expected on Weber State’s campus. That response to the Jan. 19 and 20 event, Greene says, reflects Utah educators’ commitment to improving bilingual education.
For the first time, the state Office of Education has submitted a request for bilingual education funding, said Diana Cortez, bilingual education specialist for the office. And Gov. Mike Leavitt has included a request for $ 1.6 million for bilingual education in his budget.
Exactly how many Utah children need bilingual education is unknown. Most of the state’s 40 school districts are still in the process of identifying what some call “language minorities.”
Some districts have identified more than 3,000 students with limited English ability; others have just a few. Statewide, some 23,000 students might be eligible for bilingual or English-as-a-Second-Language services.
The federal Office for Civil Rights, charged with ensuring students have equal access to education, has been investigating San Juan, Duchesne, Ogden, Granite, Jordan, Washington and Davis districts.
They are at varying stages of review with the agency, Cortez says. So far the findings have been similar, with many districts coming up short on the number of teachers who are endorsed to implement alternative-language programs.
The federal agency randomly selected the districts for investigation, which began in 1991. They all, however, have large non-English-speaking populations. The children speak not only Spanish and American Indian languages, but also Russian, Tongan, Samoan and Southeast Asian languages.
Changes in the state’s bilingual and English-as-a-Second-Language programs are not limited to the districts under Office for Civil Rights review. Cortez says all teachers will receive “some type of training to be able to provide the child access to the content.”
Currently, however, the state does not have enough public-education teachers like that, Greene says, adding, “We’re hampered somewhat because we don’t have a lot of history in this area.”
In addition to training current teachers, the state should redesign its teacher-education programs in colleges and universities so that new teachers already have the skills they need to work with these language populations, Greene says.
“That way, in the future, we should always have somebody in the schools who can help these kids.”
Without that help, students could fall hopelessly behind even if they eventually master English, says Greene, who started his teaching career in East Los Angeles where many students have limited or no English skills.
“We have to help them master English, but we also have to make sure they don’t fall behind in their studies. Because if they do, five or six years down the road we will have more problems.”