More Hispanic students in Wichita schools a factor in school boundaries

For clues about how the Wichita school district has changed over the past decade, you don't even need to walk into a classroom.

Call the main phone number at most schools, and you'll hear, "For English, press 1."

Signs outside several schools post important dates in Spanish as well as English. Tuesday at Irving Elementary School in north Wichita, for instance, is Math Day and also Dia de Matematicas.

The hallways of every public school in Wichita reflect a growing diversity, and Hispanic families continue to drive that growth.

In the past decade, the percentage of Hispanic students in Wichita schools has doubled — from 15.6 percent in the 2000-01 school year to more than 31 percent today.

Overall in Wichita public schools this year, students are 36 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic, 18.5 percent black, 8 percent multiracial, 5 percent Asian and 1.5 percent Native American, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

In five years, the number of Hispanic students could exceed the number of white students in the district.

Of course, not all Hispanic students speak Spanish — in the home or at all, officials said. Similarly, not all students who speak another language in the home are newcomers to English.

But the number of languages spoken by district students continues to increase — from 66 to 89 over the past decade — and the number of students who need help speaking or writing English is growing as well.

"The challenge is to make sure we have enough people trained... to help these students learn English," said Karen Boettcher, director of Wichita's English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) services. "And just making sure we provide what is needed."

In coming months, as the district grapples with redrawing attendance boundaries, trying to achieve racial diversity across increasingly segregated neighborhoods and school buildings could be a colossal challenge.

Three years have passed since the school board voted to end busing for integration. But when it comes to the district's Hispanic population, neither the previous busing plan — which addressed only black and white students — nor the current system truly ensures integrated schools.

At Irving Elementary, near 13th and Market, more than 90 percent of students are Hispanic, and more than 80 percent of them need extra, intensive help learning to speak and write English.

But the lack of diversity and language barriers aren't so challenging as other factors, particularly poverty, said kindergarten teacher Lisa Groth.

Nearly 98 percent of Irving students are low-income, based on their eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches. Many live in households where parents or guardians never finished school.

"The (English) language is easy for these kids. They're young, and they pick it up really fast," Groth said.

"What's hard is if they don't have that foundation of language or number skills, even in Spanish. If they start school not knowing how to count to three... Then we have to work more intensely with them to catch up."

'Like family'

Epi Luna, an ESOL teacher at Irving, remembers feeling overwhelmed and confused when her family moved to Wichita from Durango, Mexico, in 1980. A second-grader, she learned English in an ESOL classroom at Park Elementary. Most of her classmates were Vietnamese, she said.

"I had awesome teachers. We had such a strong bond," Luna said. That inspired her to become a teacher herself, and to help other children of immigrants, whatever their race, ethnicity or background.

"The kids are so amazing. They pick up things so fast," she said. Their parents feel connected with the school and neighborhood as well, she said, and the community becomes a safety net.

"We're the poorest school in Wichita, as far as the numbers go, but we're like family. And our kids are performing," said Luna, who also mentors Hispanic students from North High School.

"We're proving that our kids are very capable and our teachers are so dedicated."

Growing numbers, growing need

Wichita schools' burgeoning Hispanic population is no surprise to Dalia Hale, director of the district's Multilingual Education Services Center. The center enrolls and tests students who live in households where more than one language is spoken.

Ten years ago, fewer than 4,300 students in Wichita required ESOL services to help them speak, read and write English. This year, nearly 8,200 get the services; the majority of those are Hispanic.

In 2006, the number of Hispanic students surpassed the number of black students in Wichita schools. If the growth continues at the current rate, Hispanic students likely will surpass white students over the next five years and become the district's largest ethnic group.

Hale said data about Wichita's Spanish-speaking students dispel one popular belief — that the students are foreign-born. That's not always the case, she said.

"We have a lot of kindergartners coming into the school district that are U.S.-born without one word of English vocabulary," she said.

Several studies have shown that Hispanic populations across the world "tend to keep their mother tongue going for longer generations," Hale said. "We definitely see that at the (multilingual services) center and in our classrooms."

Hale and Boettcher, the ESOL director, said a growing number of regular-classroom teachers are working toward an ESOL endorsement. That requires about 15 hours of additional classwork and a passing score on an additional teaching certification exam.

"Our goal is to have as many teachers endorsed as possible," Boettcher said. "The more diverse the district becomes, the more likely they'll be to have those (non-English-speaking) students in their classrooms."

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