Education

What's coming for Kansas schools? More students who need help learning English

Teacher Jordan Hadley reads to the Newcomer class at Jefferson Elementary School in 2014. According to new projections from the Kansas Association of School Boards, the number of students who need help learning to speak, read and write English is expected to grow in coming years.
Teacher Jordan Hadley reads to the Newcomer class at Jefferson Elementary School in 2014. According to new projections from the Kansas Association of School Boards, the number of students who need help learning to speak, read and write English is expected to grow in coming years. File photo

In five years, more than a quarter of students in Wichita public schools will need help learning to speak, read and write English, according to new trend data from the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Projections show that while overall student enrollment is expected to drop slightly in Wichita over the next five years, the number of students who are not native English speakers will increase substantially — from about 23 percent today to about 27 percent in 2023.

That echoes a statewide trend: From 2012 to 2017, the number of students in Kansas public schools rose about 1 percent. Over the same period, the number of English language learners rose from 41,093 to 58,239 — an increase of nearly 42 percent.

School officials say English language learners cost more to educate because they require a host of additional services. In Wichita, an influx of refugee families has meant more children and teens showing up at schools with learning gaps, post-traumatic stress syndrome and behavior issues that affect learning.

"We're watching the numbers and planning, because we definitely want to be proactive," said Shannon Benoit, executive director of the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program in Wichita public schools.

"If we need to, we'll open more programs, provide more of the supports and training that we need for teachers and work with families to make sure they get into the right programs and get the wrap-around services they might need."

In Wichita, the state's largest school district, the majority of ESOL students speak Spanish. But there are lots of other languages, too — 96 across the district — including Vietnamese, Arabic, Lao and Swahili.

And English language learners are not necessarily immigrants. Data shows that most were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens.

Benoit said an influx of students who don't speak English at home will require more teachers with ESOL training. The district partners with Newman University to provide classes for teachers wanting to get their ESOL endorsement.

"That gives them strategies and the training they need to work with some of these students," Benoit said. "Especially when we know they're going to come to us with gaps."

A dozen Wichita schools offer Newcomer programs for recent immigrants and refugees. In those classrooms, children from all over the world learn basic English along with American customs and traditions. This fall, the district will add its 13th Newcomer classroom at Minneha Elementary near Central and Webb, Benoit said.

Federal law requires schools to provide information to parents in the language they prefer, so the district contracts with Propio Language Services, an over-the-phone interpreting service that lets teachers connect by phone with parents in any language.

Wichita schools also offer literacy classes and diploma programs for adults whose children qualify for ESOL services.

Some districts in western Kansas, such as Dodge City and Garden City, have even higher proportions of students who don't speak English at home. Those districts likely will see their ESOL numbers grow even further in coming years.

In Dodge City today, 58 percent of students qualify for ESOL services. In 2023, that figure is expected to increase to more than 61 percent.

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