Foreign-born students to get extra English

Wake school leaders want to launch three high school academies this fall aimed at providing more intense training for foreign-born students who struggle with English.

These pilot programs at Cary, Garner and Wakefield high schools would go beyond courses that have been deemed insufficient. The academies, for which three teachers will be hired, are billed as a recognition of the needs of the district's burgeoning Hispanic population and an attempt to combat the tendency of students who enter the ninth grade speaking little or no English to lag academically or drop out.

Across the Triangle, educators are searching for new ways to help a growing and needy population of students. Johnston County school leaders are looking to start a program similar to Wake's. And Chapel-Hill Carrboro schools are planning to hire more English-as-a-Second Language teachers to work with students on the basics of the language for up to a year before they take regular English classes.

A few school districts across North Carolina have also made similar efforts.

Educators say these students have often had little or no formal schooling, but are placed in high school because of their age. They miss the ESL programs in elementary and middle school.

Language basics first

In "ESL Academies," Wake would give students more hours during school to learn the basics of the language before taking freshman English. Typically, students are learning the basics as they take regular English courses.

"We hope that by giving them the language support first and then tackling English I, that will improve graduation," said Larry Savage, who has worked to coordinate the academies for Wake.

Most students who need additional help speak Spanish, but at least 30 percent of students with poor English skills speak other languages.

Cary, Garner and Wakefield high schools have the largest populations of students with limited English skills in the district.

"We've got these students stalling and they are not progressing as we would like them to," said Joanne Marino, an ESL consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction. "Wake is focusing on the most at-risk high school students that have not been able to be successful in the traditional high school."

In the past eight years, the number of students who come to Wake with scant skills in English has doubled. They need special instruction to improve their academic fortunes and increase the odds that they'll graduate from high school.

Tony Asion, executive director of El Pueblo, an organization that advocates for Hispanics, said he sees advantages and disadvantages in the academies.

"The advantage is that ... the child will be able to focus more on learning English if it works the way it is designed," Asion said. "But the disadvantage could be the child falls further behind in other courses."

The district's teachers and administrators have to deal with students who speak more than 100 languages. After Spanish, Chinese, French, Arabic and Vietnamese are the most common.

Numbers rise rapidly

More than 13,000 students in the district have limited English skills. Since 2000, the number who struggle with English and have received extra help has jumped from 3,027 students to 7,198.

Districts across the Triangle have seen the enrollment of Hispanics balloon in recent years. In Wake, the Hispanic population has almost doubled. There are 14,846 Hispanic students in Wake, up from 7,896 during the 2003-04 school year.

The specifics of the ESL academy are still being hashed out. Students with poor English skills could spend at least three hours each day building their English skills -- learning to conjugate verbs and build sentences, for example.

Students would also spend time overcoming some American cultural barriers foreign students face, such as the names of fruit that are common here but unknown in the countries of their birth.

Educators say these seemingly small matters can create major hurdles for students. The students would still take regular classes such as math and electives. Each academy would start small, with 10 to 15 students, and grow. Over the next several years, Wake wants to phase in academies at all high schools.

An intensive English academy for ninth-graders is long overdue, said Wake school board member Eleanor Goettee, a former teacher.

"We have got to figure out how to hook these students to learning and keep them coming back day after day," she said.