Public schools in Mississippi have had to ramp up their services for students who come to school knowing little or no English, or what educational officials call English Language Learners.
The number of non-English speaking students in the state has grown by 47 percent since 2013, or from 7,739 to 11,404, according to an internal document from the state education department. The result is more school districts are looking for ways to support these children, the majority of whom speak Spanish. Earlier this year, the state education department created a position to oversee the supports for schools.
While the majority of English learner students speak Spanish, a long list of other languages is represented throughout the state – including Chinese, Arabic, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Tagalog, among others.
Heather Maness is a Biology I teacher at Forest High School in Forest. She said her school has recently seen an influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America, many of whom speak native dialects.
These children not only speak little to no English but often dropped out of school in the 2nd grade, later coming to the United States to work, she said. However, Maness said, because of the law they are required to enroll in school. And often, because of their age, no matter their level, they are placed in the 9th grade, she said.
Maness said it’s a “struggle” to teach the eight or so of these children in her class, and there is only one ESL tutor that works with all of the English Language Learner students in the high school.
Schools around the state are also seeing an increase in students from cultures not traditionally well represented in the state. In DeSoto County School District, for example, the number of Arabic-speaking students nearly doubled from 57 to 99 from 2013 to 2015. In Madison County School District, the number increased from 28 to 65 during the same two years.
“We have a growing economy. That couple with strong public schools, I-69, aggressive industrial development, and access to the transportation outlets have spurred economic development in DeSoto County,” DeSoto County School District spokeswoman Katherine Nelson said.
Nelson said a total of 26 languages are spoken across the district.
The department’s English Learner Specialist Monique Henderson, a native of Meridian, said she’s even heard of a growing student population from Yemen in certain areas of the state.
“One thing we do is provide professional development and take a little bit of time talking about the culture and helping teachers to build their comfort level working with different cultures,” Henderson explained. “We did speak specifically about Arabic culture, and we do get calls sometimes from people about what is and isn’t appropriate when working with Arabic students.”
The number of public school students nationwide participating in programs for English language learners grew from 49.3 million in 2009 to 50.1 million in 2014, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The top three most commonly reported native languages for these students are Spanish, Arabic and Chinese.
Henderson has been with the department since January. The main focus of her job is training teachers and administrators on teaching English learners. But she also is working with colleges and universities to spread the word that the state needs more teachers credentialed in working with students learning English.
“It’s often marketed as ‘Do you want to teach English abroad?’” she said. “To a lot of our folks in school in Mississippi getting teaching credentials, their heart and life is in Mississippi … We’re trying to work with them (colleges and universities) to change that framing.”
Although the special credential doesn’t earn teachers any extra salary, it does make them marketable for a good job, Henderson said. And teachers in Mississippi, a state with no mandatory pre-kindergarten, are already experienced in working with children who show up to school with “weak vocabulary structures and weak grammar,” Henderson pointed out. Leake County English Learner coordinator Jackie Ward, who has worked in the district in that capacity since 1999, said the district’s English Learner population has grown from 17 to 250 since she started.
Mayra Sanchez graduated from Leake Central High School in 2015 and was recently accepted into paramedic school. She is hoping to eventually go on to medical school.
She moved to Carthage, Miss., with her parents, who work in the poultry plant, when she was six years old. Sanchez, who later went on to become valedictorian, failed the 1st grade and had to attend summer school.
Sanchez was in the English Language Learner program until the third grade when she tested out after being accepted into the gifted program. She continued to be monitored through graduation.
She said, however, she doesn’t believe the schools are equipped to support the influx of non-English speaking students.
“There aren’t teachers that speak Spanish and usually the classrooms have up to 20 or 22 students. So if one student gets behind, especially one that doesn’t speak English, they’re probably not going to raise their hand say ‘Hey, I need help.’ They really can’t communicate that,” she said.
At a recent forum, Forest High teacher Heather Maness expressed her concern to a panel of legislators and education officials about the impact on the school and district’s ratings.
“Because of their age, they’re in algebra, biology, English I and English II, all of these state-tested areas … If I had to go in and take a test in Spanish or their dialect, I wouldn’t be able to pass it,” Maness said. “It’s a real struggle and also hurting us in our drop out rate. Many of them come here with the intent of being workers in the U.S. and once they hit the magic age of 18, they drop out.”
Schools and districts are graded based on a mixture of graduation rates, student achievement, test-score growth, and participation rate.
Brenda Barron, 19, moved with her family to Carthage from Jalisco, Mexico when she was in the 6th grade. She started school knowing very little English but said the help of Ward was crucial, though she did not test out of the program before graduating.
“A friend of my brother’s knew Ms. Jackie Ward and when they put me in school, she helped me a lot. And then on in junior high she had a classroom with all Hispanic people where she helped them,” Barron described.
Barron said she received a lot of help from two other Spanish-speaking students in her grade and from Ward.
“When I first got to high school I had a good grade … but two months later my grade on English was a little bit low … So I talked to her and told her if she can help me talk to the English teacher and she did, and the English teacher started giving me homework to do in her classroom and it helped a lot,” Barron said.
Barron, who’s still in Carthage, said she is looking for a job to start saving for college.
Madison County School District Superintendent Ronnie McGehee said his district has increased its English Language Learner teachers from six to 11 in the past three years and is even considering offering stipends to teachers who learn another language.
“That number (of English Language Learner students) seems to be inching up on a pretty regular basis for us,” McGehee said, noting the Hispanic and Asian populations are the fastest growing in the district.