Arkansas’ non-English speaking student population doubles in nine years

Spanish-speaking interpreter Griselda Sandivar, left, helps Lidia Tomas Sebastian, with her children, Melissa Pascual-Tomas, left, and Gaspar Pascual-Tomas Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, at Lonsdale Elementary School. In her three years at Lonsdale, Sandivar's role has grown beyond interpreting to include problem solving for the area Hispanic community. (PAUL EFIRD/NEWS SENTINEL)

via EAG News: LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Arkansas lawmakers learned this week that there’s now twice as many English language learners in the state’s public schools as there were nine years ago.

Most of those nearly 40,000 students speak Spanish as a first language, and results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress – a national standardized test – shows they’re learning more than their peers in most other southeastern states, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports.

“It seems like, especially in literacy … we actually are more successful than the U.S. average in closing the gap,” state Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, said during a legislative committee meeting Tuesday. “And that closed gap continues through eighth-grade literacy.”

Legislative analyst Mandy Gillip told lawmakers the total number of ELL students in Arkansas increased from 20,173 in the 2005-06 school year to 37,330 last year, which follows a similar trend in the state’s Spanish-speaking population in general.

Spanish speaking residents accounted for 3.2 percent of the total population in 2000, but that figure currently sits at about 7 percent, she said.

Results from the 2013 NAEP test show that when compared with 14 other southeastern states, Arkansas’ ELL students ranked first in fourth-grade math, and second in eighth-grade math. The same students placed third in fourth-grade literacy and first in literacy among eighth-graders, the Democrat Gazette reports.

Gillip said local schools accomplished the impressive results with the freedom to craft their own programs, rather than through state-mandated learning requirements. UALR Public Radio reports lawmakers are analyzing the ELL data and funding “as part of an annual review of educational adequacy needs tied to the state’s 1992 federal Lake View lawsuit.”

Gillip told lawmakers expenditures for ELL programs in public schools totaled nearly $16 million this school year, less than education consultants recommended, according to the site.

The total translates to $317 per ELL student in state funding specifically dedicated to helping them learn English. But local schools also spend additional money on ELL students from other funds – like professional development, school lunch and “Alternative Learning Environment” accounts – to bring the total state funding to $425 per student, Gillip said.

The situation prompted Democrat Sen. Uvalde Lindsey to question whether the state should be spending more on ELL students.

“When you consider what’s moved over … it’s enough to cover it,” Gillip said, according to the Democrat Gazette. “While we are spending about 134 percent of our total (English language learner) funding, we are still able to carry over a balance at the end of the year.”

The majority of the state’s ELL student live in four cities: Springdale, Rogers, Fort Smith and Little Rock, and 86 percent of them speak Spanish. About 6.2 percent speak Marshallese, 1.3 percent speak Vietnamese and 1 percent speak Loatian.

Last year, 69 percent scored proficient or better in literacy and 59 percent reached that benchmark in math. The scores came in roughly 10 percentage points lower than the general Arkansas student population in both categories, UALR reports.

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