Parents demand improvements to Hispanic education

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The population of Hispanic students in the Moffat County School District has more than doubled in a year, leaving parents to question whether students are getting the best education available.

A group of parents have addressed the Ridgeview Elementary School Parent Advisory Committee and the district's School Improvement Committee asking that changes be made to accommodate the 87 students in the English Language Learners (ELL) and English as a Second Language programs (ESL).

They are not alone in their concern. School officials said the issue is one they hoped to address this year, and set it as a priority.

"You're talking to a group of people who are automatically on your side," school district Director of Curriculum and Staff Development Janet Bohart said. "We think improvements can be made."

Two years ago the Board of Education agreed that if the ESL population grew to more than 50, they would re-evaluate the program and consider adding staff members.

There are currently three ESL aides in the school district. The program has no coordinator or certified teacher to oversee the aides, which one parent says could be illegal. According to Sandra Duarte, state statute requires the school district to have a teacher overseeing the ESL aides.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, the school district is complying with the letter of the law, Bohart said. The district has had a program consultant and a volunteer who works with the program for approximately one hour a day, which meets legal requirements, but doesn't mean it's the most effective system, she said.

All the elementary ELL students are bussed to Ridgeview Elementary where the district's only kindergarten through fourth grade ELL program is located. That worked when there were only 20 to 25 students in the program, Ridgeview Elementary School Principal Pete Bergmann said, but doesn't now. Forty-six of the 87 Hispanic students in the school district are in elementary school.

That, Bergmann said, is too big of a student population for one aide to educate effectively.

"It's not working effectively now at Ridgeview with 46 students and one aide," he said.

According to Bergmann, 60 to 80 percent of all non-English speaking kindergartners won't be ready for first grade because of a lack in staffing and the half-day students attend classes. Ridgeview has developed a K-1 program where those students spend a half-day in kindergarten and a half day in first grade to get them ready for second grade.

"Our goal is to mainstream students as quickly as we can into the regular classroom," Bergmann said. "We don't have the resources with our present system to meet the needs. That's why we're looking at options."

Bergmann doesn't think the program is flawed. Students who begin in Moffat County's ELL program and advance through to high school do well.

"I think we've done a good job meeting the needs of the students up until now," he said.

Not only do parents think their students aren't getting the education they need, they are concerned about the social impacts of their children being bussed to a school that is not in their neighborhood. They're asking the school district to consider placing an ELL or ESL aide in each of the three elementary schools and hire a coordinator to oversee those classes.

In a survey of parents, several said they felt there was a culture clash in the community that would not be as bad if Spanish-speaking students attended their neighborhood schools. There are several high school students who have never attended school with a Hispanic student. One parent said other students made fun of her child's inability to speak English.

Parents want their children to be able to attend their neighborhood school, but they want to be sure the services exist for their children before they are relocated.

And that's an expensive proposal. Moffat County School District aides make around $15,000 a year and teachers can earn between $30,000 and $35,000. In addition, all teachers at schools with ESL programs must be trained to deal with non-English speaking students in their classroom. All the teachers at Ridgeview have had the training so that Hispanic students are better integrated into the classroom.

The school district gets $5,000 from the state for its ESL program.

Bergmann estimates the ELL and ESL population will increase to 115 to 120 next year, more than forty of which will be elementary school students. If students are allowed to attend neighborhood schools, there could be anywhere from 9 to 20 students per school.

The School Improvement Committee will make several recommendations to the Board of Education. The first will be to hire a coordinator to oversee the aides with instruction, assessment and communication. The second will be to hire or redistribute ESL aides to meet the needs at every school.

The recommendations will be the first step toward improving the program, but won't be a fix-all, Duarte said. She believes the school district needs to concentrate more on middle school and high school students. Moffat County's program is geared toward elementary school students. Once those students reach middle school and high school, it is assumed they will have some facility with the English language, but many don't. Three of the seven ESL students at the high school need intensive English education. They do not benefit from elective courses or even basic science and math course because they don't speak English and that problem needs to be addressed. The school district needs to graduate ESL students who have similar skills to English-speaking students, Duarte said.

Bergmann said the problem is that some students don't go through the entire Moffat County ELL and ESL program. They are enrolled directly into middle or high school.

One option could be to offer after-school services.

There are several other recommendations the committee is considering, but they want to meet with parents to get input.

"We don't want to make a decision without getting parents' input and direction," said school spokesman Archie Neil.

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