Columbia Public Schools sees increase in number of English-language learners

Saturday, November 22, 2008 | 5:21 p.m. CST; updated 7:35 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 23, 2008

COLUMBIA — When English Language Learner teacher Sarah Pedrazas started teaching at Field Elementary School three years ago, she had 30 students in her class. Now she has 52. The rise mirrors a district-wide increase in Columbia Public Schools .

Jenifer Albright-Borts, district coordinator of the ELL and social studies programs, said she has seen the number of ELL students increase by 138 to a total of 618 studentssince she started working for the district in July. She attributes the increase to children moving into the district and the growing refugee and immigrant population. There are 47 native languages spoken by Columbia students. The three most spoken languages are Spanish, with 172 students, Korean, with 129, and Chinese, with 35.

There are ELL students at every site, but services are only available at 13 schools. Although students can transfer to a school with ELL services, Albright-Borts said many families choose to keep their children in neighborhood schools.

The increase has teachers concerned about supplies.

"My classes are full," said Peggy White, an ELL teacher at Rock Bridge High School who has asked for more textbooks and resources.

"I didn't get everything I had requested," she said. "This is the first year that's happened. I did get more textbooks. I didn't get enough."

The district follows instructional time and ratio suggestions outlined by Missouri Migrant Education and English Language Learning program specialists. Under the guidelines, students are allocated time based first by grade and then by skill level. The district is following the suggestions and keeping classes small.

Paxton Keeley Elementary School has the most ELL students in Columbia. A majority of its 71 ELL students are referrals from the refugee resettlement office, which also makes it one of the most diverse ELL populations in the district. The school maintains a student-teacher ratio of either 4-to-1 or 7-to-1, and ELL teachers meet with students for 45 minutes a day for first through fifth grades and 30 minutes a day for kindergarten.

Pedrazas is the only ELL teacher at Field Elementary, yet the school has managed to keep a low student-teacher ratio because of a program called Interventions that was developed by the school's principal, Carol Garman. The program allows ELL students to stay in the traditional classroom; when the rest of the students go to daily reading and writing programs, ELL students meet with their ELL teacher.

"Without this model at a school, I would not be able to serve their full needs," Pedrazas said. Pedrazas meets with kindergarten through fifth-grade ELL students each day for 45 minutes and an additional hour per week for beginning ELL students.

The program also schedules time twice a month for Pedrazas to meet with individual classroom teachers and literacy coaches.

"That's how I keep up with the kids that aren't in my class," she said. She explained that a dozen of her ELL students are advanced and only require some observation.

Rock Bridge High School is one of three schools in the district that has an immersion center. Only students who plan to stay in the U.S. long-term are allowed into the program because of the high cost of attending the center.

"They get three hours a day of intensive ELL services, and then in the afternoon they go to classes like P.E. and art, classes where they don't need to know English to survive in those classes," said White.

In addition to the immersion center, Rock Bridge offers classes for intermediate and advanced ELL students. A structured study hall is another resource available to students.

"These kids are (15-19)-year-old students. Their English is at a pre-kindergarten level, and they're expected to go into high-school-level classes. It's very difficult," she said.

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