GERALDA MILLER / RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL
More than 16,000 students in Washoe County School District speak 52 languages other than English as their primary language.
Some can speak English proficiently as a second language while others cannot speak English and also are illiterate in their primary language.
The challenge for Mary Ann Robinson, English as a Second Language and world language coordinator for the district, is to make sure that the 10,276 students at varying levels of English proficiency grasp the language and are prepared academically to graduate and achieve their goals.
"I want them to have the equal opportunity that others have," Robinson said.
For English language learners (ELL) to become proficient in English and garner that parity, Robinson said it is going to take a districtwide commitment to training. Also needed, she said, is a commitment -- districtwide -- to teaching the students and funding to purchase an English language curriculum for elementary schools.
However, Robinson will have to wait for federal funding since she lost 31 percent of her Title III funds, money she had planned to use for a structured language program.
"We need a curriculum written for English language learners," she said. "The school district gives me textbook funds."
The first task she said she tackled 3½ years ago when given the position was to join a district initiative to focus on high schools by making sure each had the ESL staff it needed and developed a common curriculum.
As a former elementary school teacher, Robinson recognized that the majority of English language learners attended elementary schools. She said she would have preferred beginning with them and moved up to high school. Instead, the opposite is happening.
"Our high schools are set as far as the number of ESL teachers," she said. "And middle schools, they are set."
More trained teachers
Although every school in the district has English language learners, there are 10 elementary schools in the district that do not have endorsed ESL teachers. The district has 134 endorsed teachers. Teachers must take 12 credit hours at a college to be endorsed as ESL teachers.
In addition, paying attention to the current rate of growth in the district, Robinson estimated that she will need almost 38 more teachers on her staff next year and 47.98 more in 2008 to maintain the ideal student/ESL teacher ratio of 60 to 1.
Robinson is realizing that cannot happen, and she is planning alternatives.
"We can't have that many ESL teachers," she said. "We have to train our regular teachers. Our content area teachers, our classroom teachers, have to be trained."
While ESL teachers instruct the English language learners for 45 to 90 minutes a day, Robinson said it is the classroom teacher who works with them the rest of the day that must know how to effectively work with the children.
If a school does not have an ESL teacher, the district will provide transportation for the student to attend a program in another school.
However, Robinson said at some point, that option will be unrealistic.
She has introduced two training programs for all teachers to acquire the skills necessary to teach English language learners.
The development programs -- Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) and Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD) -- also are part of the district's diversity action plan.
Barbara McLaury, senior director of Title I, ESL and Area V schools, headed the professional development committee for the diversity plan and stressed the importance of the training programs as a part of developing cultural competency.
"We really believe that they are a central part to teacher's understanding of the teaching strategies necessary to support ELL at all levels," she said. "They give teachers a really strong framework. It is another piece of support to deal with all of the diversity they have in the classroom."
About 250 middle and high school teachers have received SIOP training and about 522 teachers have gone through the five-day GLAD training.
Two schools where all the teachers have been trained in SIOP and seen positive results are Traner Middle School and Hugh High School, Robinson said.
This year was the first that Hug passed the Limited English Proficiency tests in all categories.
"He had already seen SIOP in Washington and knew that it was a wonderful product," she said of Hug Principal Andy Kelly. "He went in and said 'this is the best model I've seen and if you have another one that you think works for all kids, tell me. They didn't.'"
Robinson has been spending a great deal of time evaluating the dozen schools that did not pass the Limited English Proficiency (LEP) test.
She and her staff now will spend time at each school, talking with teachers and administrators about how to make improvements.
Robinson said she must remain positive and tell them: "We can do it! We're very close."
She will make certain they are following the curriculum and look at the individual needs of each student.
The needs of each teacher also must be discussed, Robinson said. Also, she said she will be strongly encouraging those teachers not trained in GLAD or SIOP to plan on doing so.
"We are at a critical point right now," she said. "We can't wait for schools to decide that they want to have training."
Because of No Child Left Behind requirements, the parent of every child that enrolls in the district must complete a home language survey.
The survey asks whether the child speaks a language other than English and if there is a language other than English spoken in the home.
If the parent answers yes to either of the questions, the district is required to assess the child within 30 days at the beginning of the school year and 10 days in the remainder of the year.
"Right now, we have over 2,000 kindergartners, and we have to give them our little placement test," she said.
She said she sympathizes with the children who have never taken a test before.
"I told them, 'You won't be able to do this. Next year, you'll be able to do a little bit," she said. "And we had two students who passed the English and three that passed the math, so shame on us for trying to protect them."
Depending upon their literacy, the students are placed in one of five levels from entry to proficient.
"Then, every year, we have to give an assessment -- the English Language Proficiency Assessment, ELPA," she said. "We have to show that our children are increasing. They should be increasing. We're doing a good job with that now with the proficiency increasing."
NCLB also requires students not only be proficient in English but approaching standards on the high school proficiency or criterion-referenced tests, state's standardized tests given in the third through eighth grades.
"You can't just know English," Robinson said. "You have to know math, science and social studies. And if you do not, then you're still in ESL."