February 10, 2013

Federal funding helps English learners

Cuts may be coming in March

By Christopher Smith

— Whitfield County school officials are hopeful recent economic growth will be enough to keep members of Congress from slashing an already tight education budget if automatic spending cuts hit the federal budget this March.

Lori Calhoun, director of federal programs for Whitfield County Schools, is particularly worried about cuts to Title I funding, a federal provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

“Title I is based on poverty ranking of schools and that figure comes from Free and Reduced food applications submitted in our district,” said Calhoun. “Title I is distributed to schools based on the poverty of students in their schools, but is not limited and can be used on struggling students.”

School system officials reported 9,578 students, or 72 percent of a student population of 13,301, are in the Free or Reduced Lunch Program as of Oct. 2, 2012. That’s an increase from 9,218, or 69 percent, in the 2011-2012 school year. The number of students currently in the program is not known because data on the program is only reported once a year, said spokesman Eric Beavers.

“Trends can be derived from year to year, (but the number of students in the program) has increased every year since at least 1995,” he said.

A budget summary from the school system last week said $3.8 million of Title I funding was given to county schools for fiscal year 2012. With a total of 861 students, North Whitfield Middle School receives the most Title I funding at $201,500. With 346 students, Tunnel Hill Elementary School receives the least amount at $61,181.

More than $1.6 million goes towards instruction, which includes contracted tutors and additional teacher salaries to reduce the student-teacher ratio in classrooms, said school officials. Another $596,867 goes towards professional learning (training for teachers), while $56,373 goes towards parent involvement, defined as funding used to increase the “participation of parents in regular, two-way and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities.”

“We have a community-driven Literacy Collaborative and Title I helps fund that and helps us focus on getting at-risk students acquiring reading skills,” Calhoun said. “That’s an intrinsic need for all school subjects. If you’re not literate and you can’t read on grade level, then you can’t learn math; you can’t learn social studies.”

Representatives from the Dalton City Council, Dalton Public Schools, the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce, Whitfield County Schools and the Whitfield Board of Commissioners collectively put $1.5 million to fund the Literacy Collaborative in hopes of enhancing reading opportunities and bringing in reading coaches. Title I also helps fund the collaborative to train teachers to accelerate learning.

English vs. academic English

But to read English, you have to learn English. That’s where Title III comes in. Title III is federal funding for programs and training to help students learn English as a second language.

“The Title III program is the funding from the federal and state level to the specific English learner population,” said Meg Baker, teaching and learning coordinator for the county school system. “That’s a sub-population of bigger groups, not just Spanish-speaking English learners. We have six Asian countries represented in our school, one Middle Eastern, and two European. Spanish is just the most prominent.”

Out of the 5,186 Hispanic students (an increase from 2,532 Hispanic students in 2002) in the county system, at least 850 are English learners. County school officials base their English-learning population data on families, not students, so the number is likely to be higher than 850. At 17 families, Vietnamese are the second largest population for English learners, while 11 Urdu-speaking (either from Pakistan or Indian) families represent the third biggest population. Overall, there are 1,865 English learners in county schools.

Title III helps all English-learning students in the same way, said Baker, by funding professional development of teachers through programs like Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), a program that trains teachers to give students individual attention and help students develop a knack for the English language.

“As long as you’re learning the basic building blocks of language you get the scaffolding to learn a new language,” Calhoun said. “All you need are the building blocks. A home can be monolingual (one language), but as long as they are practicing to be literate within the home students can learn English in the classroom regardless of their background.”

That’s not to say English should replace the students’ original language, Baker said.

“One of the misconceptions you have to learn English, you have to ignore the original language,” she said. “They are already cognitive with the basics of language. That’s all they need to learn.”

But an English learner’s education also includes learning “academic English,” the English language as it is used within the context of schools to teach new concepts to students.

 “When you teach math or social studies or anything, you’re teaching academic English,” she said. “Students who don’t speak English have to learn about a year-and-a-half’s worth of material in a year. And that goes on for their first nine years. So the need for intense teaching methods is obvious.”

The need is more obvious when you consider the job market, Calhoun said.

“We’re becoming a global community,” she said. “With technology advancing us in the way it has, being closed-minded to other cultures is not an option anymore. To be globally competitive means to embrace other cultures ... and we are, our English learners have been above state averages.”

Since 2008, 60 to 70 percent of English learners in county schools have learned the basics of English, while the state average has hovered around 40 percent, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

“When children come to school, you educate them,” Calhoun said. “Educating a child is never a burden. Plus, we’re responding to federal mandates and the extra funds (from Title III and Title I) make it so it isn’t a burden on the local community.”