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Last modified: Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Second language learners are a first priority issue

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Nov. 13, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Over the last decade, Indiana's number of English as a Second Language (ESL) students has quadrupled, and the state is struggling to meet the demand for certified ESL instructors. Panelists, including an Indiana University School of Education professor, will offer opinions on remedies to the issues surrounding ESL education during the next Education Policy Chat.

The continuing growth of the ESL student population will be the focus for the chat, co-hosted by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy and the IU School of Education, on Wednesday (Nov. 14) at 1:30 p.m. in State Room East of the Indiana Memorial Union. The event is free and open to the public.

Increasingly high numbers of students, low funding and a steady stream of immigrants provide a challenge for all Indiana educators. In areas across the state, the number of ESL students shows no sign of decreasing.

"We just made the 1,000 (ESL student) mark, and we represent 44 languages," said Debbie Thomas, ESL director for the Bartholomew Consolidated Schools in Columbus, Ind. Thomas said Columbus schools are probably slightly higher than the state's ESL rate.

Sylvia Martinez

Sylvia Martinez

Print-Quality Photo

Thomas will speak, along with Sylvia Martinez, assistant professor in Education Leadership and Policy Studies, and Darlene Slaby, the director of the Language Minority and Migrant Programs office of the Indiana Department of Education. A question-and-answer session will follow the panel discussion.

With the explosion of ESL students in Indiana over the last decade, the state has struggled to find enough certified ESL instructors. The Indiana average is one per 60 students.

In Columbus, Thomas said she is trying to make sure all teachers understand that, to an extent, they have to be prepared to handle ESL issues. "Our students belong to all of us," she said. "They're not just the ESL teacher's students."

One concern Martinez has is that the emphasis on becoming proficient in English may be hurting those students.

"I don't want to give the impression that this isn't important, but they tend to fall behind academically in terms of content," she said.

Martinez is a sociologist who particularly focuses on the experiences of Latino youth in high school. She is concerned that while they might become fluent in English by their senior year, the rest of their coursework suffers.

"They don't get the content in math or science," she said. "Part of that probably is because there are not enough qualified ESL teachers in these content areas, so we definitely need to work on that."

She adds that one benefit of a bilingual education might be that ESL students can keep up in other courses while learning English. But she cautions that schools with numerous languages, such as Columbus, provide challenges: How do you have bilingual education where 44 languages are spoken?

Education for the public in general is a big key, say both Martinez and Thomas. Martinez said that we must recognize that the Latino students enter school with very diverse experiences. While some may have had poor educational backgrounds, others might be very solid in some content.

And even with the longstanding efforts of Columbus educators, Thomas says more outreach can help.

"We have a community that's somewhat of an international community because of Cummins and Arvin," she said. "We have a lot of languages represented, and that's always helped us."

Still, she said some people need to be convinced that the Latino population is a help to the local economy and other stereotypes don't hold. "Even though I think that we do a really good job of welcoming people, I think that we could even do a better job," she said.

CEEP promotes and supports rigorous program evaluation and policy research primarily, but not exclusively, for education, human services and non-profit organizations. Its research uses both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. To learn more about CEEP, go to http://ceep.indiana.edu.

MEDIA OUTLETS: The following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Web site at http://site.educ.indiana.edu/news/tabid/5663/Default.aspx. Look for the story headline under "Podcasts."

Martinez says many ESL students struggle with the dual demands of language acquisition as well as content study:

"Particularly with the high school students, I worry about them because there is this focus on English proficiency -- and again, I don't want to give this impression that this isn't important -- but they tend to fall behind academically in terms of content. They don't get the content in math or science. Part of that probably is because there are not enough qualified ESL teachers in these content areas, so we definitely need to work on that."

Not all Latino immigrants come with the same academic background, Martinez says:

"Kids come with a diverse set of experiences. So some may have had really good schooling experiences in their home countries. And they come here, and they know the content, but it's just learning the language, and unfortunately they may fall behind in trying to become English proficient. Then there are other kids who come here with very poor schooling experiences or backgrounds. So not only do they have to become English proficient, but they have to catch up academically. So we do have to recognize that there is a diverse set of experiences and backgrounds."

Thomas says the continued growth of the Columbus ESL population shows that the school corporation must look at the issue in a larger scope:

"We just made the 1,000 mark, and we represent 44 languages. So, you know we're increasing quickly. The majority of our students are speaking Spanish -- of Latino descent -- and that represents about 7 percent of our population, and we have now attained 10 percent of our overall school population. So just like the other school systems, making sure that everybody -- including the mainstream teachers and administrators -- recognize that ESL is something that is here to stay. Our students belong to all of us, they're not just the ESL teacher's students."

While Columbus has viewed the issue progressively, Thomas says more can always be done:

"We have a community that's somewhat of an international community because of Cummins, because of Arvin. We have a lot of the Japanese companies also, and we have a lot of languages represented and that's always helped us. But I had somebody out there today -- even though I think that we do a really good job of welcoming people, I think that we could even do a better job. So we face the same problems that a lot of communities do -- facing the issues, including immigration, trying to make people aware to get rid of the ignorance. So they can, in fact, see that immigration is helping us. The Latino population is helping the economic situation in Columbus."