When Terri Burr welcomed her 24 morning kindergartners to their first day of school, she was surprised to hear one-third respond in Japanese, Chinese, Nuer or Hindi.
Edison Elementary, the northwest Omaha school where Burr teaches, had not expected any non-English-speaking students this year. Burr had no special training on how to teach them.
She pleaded for help, and the Omaha School District responded a week later with a temporary teacher who visits the morning kindergarten class about two hours a week, dividing her part-time schedule between the eight kindergartners and eight other of Edison’s newest immigrants. An additional 12 such schoolmates are in limbo until the district hires a permanent English as a Second Language teacher and aide for the school.
Edison, near 97th and Blondo Streets, is among a number of Omaha schools struggling to teach immigrant children in the wake of the district’s decision to revamp its rapidly growing ESL program, and to do so the same year it dismantled 23 years of forced racial integration by busing.
The district, in essence, broke up a more centralized ESL program and dispersed nearly 1,900 ESL elementary students among neighborhood schools. Separate ESL instruction for most kindergartners through third-graders was eliminated. As a result, the number of elementary schools serving children who speak limited English nearly doubled – from 29 to 56.
But district administrators did not accurately predict where the children would land. And although the students are in classrooms, there is not enough staff to serve everyone as intended.
Ten weeks into the school year, the district has yet to fill positions for six ESL teachers and 13 ESL aides. The gap has narrowed since a few weeks ago, when the district lacked eight teachers and 22 aides.
Furthermore, about half the 160 teachers most in contact with ESL students lack the district’s recommended training, as do nearly all 165 ESL teachers aides.
Superintendent John Mackiel said training will continue, as will efforts to hire more staff.
“We constantly strive to anticipate everything that could be possible,” Mackiel said. “Obviously we did not.”
He said several factors combined for a shaky start. The main reason was the decision to overhaul ESL at the same time the district ceased forced racial busing and allowed students to attend their neighborhood schools or take a bus to certain other schools. Both major policy shifts were engineered and implemented in a few months after passage of a $ 254 million bond issue in May.
The changes caused a hectic and at times confusing summer for the district and its parents. About 300 ESL elementary students were not enrolled until just before or after the start of school, and more students than school officials had expected selected schools outside their neighborhood.
At the same time, the nearly 1,900 ESL students enrolled in kindergarten through sixth grades amounted to a 30 percent increase over last year. (The students make up 7 percent of all elementary enrollment.)
The search for employees qualified to teach ESL students is not easy, Mackiel said, given the nationwide teacher shortage and fierce competition for bilingual educators.
Principals have turned to parent volunteers or have tapped other staff members to help temporarily.
Translators also are stretched thin.
The hardest-hit students are about 50 youngsters in Edison and 11 other schools. They lack permanent ESL teachers working with them even part-time.
Students in such schools are not getting all the services they need, said Susan Mayberger, coordinator of the district’s ESL program.
Keeping an eye on Omaha’s ESL effort is the Office on Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education. Two years ago, the office recommended Omaha move more ESL students into regular classrooms.
Local school administrators say they will gauge success of the new ESL approach based on student test scores and parent surveys.
Despite the start-up problems, parents and immigrant advocates generally are supportive of the mainstreaming strategy.
“When this program has reached its goal, I think it will be a positive thing for the community,” said Mary Vazquez, president of the Chicano Awareness Center. “But in the transition stage, obviously there are some concerns.”
Vazquez originally had qualms about reducing separate ESL classroom instruction. Now she thinks that students and their families could benefit as much from being schooled nearer to home, which makes parental involvement easier.
The down side, she said, is that too few teachers have the training needed to reach students new to America, children whose English is limited or nonexistent. And, she said, some teachers have ESL students by assignment – not by choice.
“Teacher attitude plays a big role,” said Vazquez.
Melinda Ulloa, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education on ESL issues, said teacher training is essential.
The district was recently awarded a $ 2.5 million federal grant to train ESL teachers and staff. As it stands now:
About half of the 160 teachers most in contact with Omaha’s ESL elementary students have either an ESL certificate from a university or have completed a 30-hour training course this summer that was recommended by the district.
Sixteen of the 165 designated ESL aides completed the summer training. An additional 150 staff members went through part of it.
Thirty more teachers and aides started the training course this month. Another round will begin in January.
It would have been better to train all staff before assigning them ESL children, said Nancy Rowch of the State Department of Education. “Considering how fast this plan was implemented, I don’t know how you could have done it.”
Mackiel said he stands by the district’s decision to reorganize the ESL program and end forced racial busing all within a few months. It made sense to implement both changes together, he said, because both reforms are aimed in part at getting students into their neighborhood schools.
“We did this under a very unique set of circumstances and time frame,” said Mackiel. “It’s only going to improve.”
The district’s most experienced ESL teachers were put in the 11 elementary schools the district knew would have the highest number of ESL students. Called “comprehensive ESL centers” because they have more programs to reach immigrant families, the 11 schools, all east of 60th Street, have three-fourths of the ESL population.
Two of the comprehensive schools have “newcomer” classes for older elementary children who recently immigrated. The one-year class is supposed to prepare those students, whose tougher course work requires an especially good grasp of English, for entry into a regular classroom the following year.
“I feel confident about what we’re doing in the schools that have the largest amounts of ESL students,” said Mayberger. “I am more concerned about the one or two students at Miller Park, the five students at Sunny Slope.” She said school officials had not anticipated those students, as well as other small pockets of non-English-speakers attending schools outside the south Omaha area.
Miller Park is among the dozen elementary schools that last week still had no ESL teacher.
In many of those schools, the district was caught off-guard when families enrolled late or made a choice to go somewhere other than their nearest school.
Even at schools with an ESL teacher, the burden is heavy. At Harrison and Walnut Hill, for example, a teacher last week traveled daily between the two schools, seeing 38 ESL students a day, mostly in groups.
Individual schools have addressed staffing shortages in various ways.
At Skinner Magnet, two of the school’s four ESL students are in a classroom with a bilingual teacher. Various staff members pitch in to help the other two students, one who speaks Spanish and the other Nuer, the language of Sudan.
Some classrooms with a high number of ESL students are sharing an aide until more are hired, Mayberger said. Most of the ESL aide jobs were created this year to help students as they moved into regular classrooms.
Mackiel said he is confident the district soon will meet its ESL teacher goal. He is not as confident in his ability to attract enough aides and bilingual liaisons. Higher pay from other employers, Mackiel said, has worked against the district.
More support staff for the ESL students can’t come soon enough for Alberta Nelson, principal at Edison.
“Some of the students are struggling,” she said.
Students in the schools now without an ESL teacher could not transfer to a comprehensive ESL center better able to serve their needs. That is because the centers lie outside the transfer boundaries allowed for those students under the district’s neighborhood schools plan.
District officials are not making exceptions. At least for this year, officials are sticking to the goal of developing an ESL program within buildings that have ESL students, rather than moving kids around.
Mackiel said choices for ESL students might change next year. For example, he said, the district could limit which schools ESL students attend if a shortage of support staff continued.
“We said going into this the plan was fluid,” he said.
At Edison, the changing ethnic makeup of the neighborhood led to unanticipated ESL kindergartners.
Burr’s kindergartners have made progress in spite of the language barriers, she said. The children whose first language is not English have had difficulty following directions, she said. Putting their name on the top of the page, for example, is not a simple task.
She has started a “study buddy” system among the students. A tougher challenge, she said, is building a rapport with parents who don’t speak English.