Area schools work to meet needs of nonnative English-speakers

Image description
Image description
In classrooms across Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto, a multitude of languages and dialects can be heard, including Hindi, Tamil, Vietnamese, Arabic, Spanish and Amharic. Data from the Texas Education Agency between 2008-18 highlighted double-digit growth in Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto ISDs' bilingual and English as a Second Language enrollment, increasing 33.8% in RRISD, 87.1% in PfISD and 67.1% in HISD, respectively.


As it stands, 92 languages other than English are spoken in Round Rock ISD, 53 in Pflugerville ISD and 17 in Hutto ISD—a trend, officials from each district said, that is only expected to continue.


Meeting demands


According to the 2018 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates released in December, 26.6% of children ages 5-17 in Round Rock speak a language other than English, a slight dip from the 27% recorded in the 2013 ACS data. From 2008-18, however, the Texas Education Agency reported the number of English Language Learners in RRISD increased 22.5%. For students enrolled in both bilingual and English as a Second Language programs, that figure jumped by 33.8%.


"Our tech industry and just the diversification of the Central Texas area has brought in lots of different folks globally into our area," said Maria Green, the director of bilingual and ESL programs at RRISD.


State requirements mandate that when parents enroll a child in school, they must complete a home language survey to evaluate the student’s proficiency in English, Green said. Based on the results, the child is enrolled in either an ESL class or a dual-language program, depending on how developed their English communication skills are. Dual-language programs are typically offered to students with less developed English-speaking skills, Green added.


Dual-language programs have become increasingly popular across the United States in recent years, a system that aims to enrich a child’s native language skills while also fostering their English reading, writing and speaking capabilities. There are two forms of dual-language programs: two-way dual language and one-way dual language.


Two-way dual language programs include both native and nonnative English speakers in an effort to enhance the bilingualism and biliteracy of both groups of students. One-way systems specifically hone in on nonnative English speakers, teaching core content areas such as math and science in both languages to enhance students' English proficiency while also enriching their native dialect.


Along with providing for its bilingual programs, Bertha Benedict, the coordinator of RRISD’s bilingual and ESL programs, said the district is looking to expand upon dual-language programs to accommodate nonnative English speakers who do not speak Spanish. It is a challenge, Green added, extending from the state level.


“We don't run a bilingual program in languages [other than Spanish] because we simply can't find the teachers,” Green said. “We should be running [additional] bilingual programs, but there are just not any kind of teachers who can teach this. The state does not have a certification in these languages, so that makes it doubly hard for us to provide.”


To meet growing demands outside of the classroom, RRISD now provides a translation service in multiple languages to teachers, staff members and administrators at all campuses within the district in an effort to enhance connections between parents and their child’s school community. Within its classrooms, the district has also utilized recent bond funds to purchase iPads and updated software products, as well as providing teacher training to enhance the education of nonnative English-speaking students, Green said.


Connecting cultures


Out of RRISD, PfISD and HISD, PfISD has experienced the highest percentage growth in its ELL student population and bilingual and ESL program enrollment from 2008-18, with TEA data reporting an increase of 47.3% and 87.1%, respectively. Out of its total student population in 2018, 22.1% of students qualified as English Language Learners, and 26.2% of students utilized its bilingual and ESL classes.


"We do know we’re diversifying, and we’re seeing it every day; we’re seeing it every year," PfISD Communications Officer Tamra Spence said. "We are committed to ensuring that all of our students that come in, that we are working to meet their needs."


Each of PfISD's K-12 campuses offers ESL education, Spence said, with 10 campuses dedicated to one-way dual-language programs and four offering a two-way dual-language curriculum. Dual-language programs operate only at the elementary level, with ESL classes available to middle and high school students to prevent any language barriers from affecting students' comprehension.


“The idea is that we get our kids to be truly, not just bilingual, but also biliterate, so they can read and write in a language other than their native language,” Spence said.


For older students immigrating to the United States, Spence said PfISD has put measures in place to ensure that not only is their educational experience not interrupted, but that they are also guided through their immersion into a new culture.


PfISD's Newcomers Program, offered at Connally High School, as a one-year initiative for high school student immigrants to acclimate to the district and expand upon their English language skills. Regardless of where they are zoned or what their native language is, students spend one year learning English and adapting to their new environment before entering their zoned high school.


"It’s essential to help them with the language and the cultural barriers and get them up to speed," Spence said. "And that's for all languages. They join that cohort for that year, and it’s helping them to learn English, to overcome any cultural barriers that there might be."


Growth on the horizon


From 2008-18, the TEA reported Hutto's ELL student population increased 25%. At the same time, HISD's bilingual and ESL education enrollment increased 67.1%. Some of the most common non-English languages spoken in the district, officials said, include Vietnamese, Amharic and Portuguese.


“We embrace that diversity, and we're really proud of the student population that we have,” HISD Superintendent Celina Estrada Thomas said. “I think that's what makes Hutto unique.”


Estrada Thomas said trends highlight growth of nonnative English speakers entering the district at "entry points," such as pre-K and kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade.


"When families are going to relocate to a new community and new town, they're going to research those schools, and they're going to try to enter at those particular entry points so that it's less disruptive," Estrada Thomas said. "So kids have a continuous educational experience either at the elementary or the secondary level."


For ESL programs offered throughout HISD, students are assigned an ESL teacher who acts as a case manager for them, said Anna Moreno, a bilingual and ESL specialist in the district.


"We have a dedicated teacher who advocates for the student and provides sheltered instruction, which means they're getting their content in a sheltered manner," Moreno said. "They use different strategies that they're trained in to make sure the students can access the curriculum."


An example of sheltered instruction, Estrada Thomas said, includes using sentence stems—the beginning of a sentence or train of thought—to help enhance student comprehension and aid them in completing full sentences in English.


While Estrada Thomas said she values the work of her district's ESL program, she added that for HISD students, the district’s dual-language program is an essential component of their educational experience and is something students are able to access from elementary school onward.


"The achievement for children who were exposed to multiple languages at the secondary level is just astounding," Estrada Thomas said. "Those children’s progress will just skyrocket as they get older.”


Competing needs



With each district projected to continually grow as the area's overall population increases, representatives from all three districts said dual-language and ESL programs will continue to be offered and expanded upon based on needs assessments.


HISD’s 9th Grade Center is projected to open in August 2021, Estrada Thomas said, adding the district is already looking to hire an additional one or two ESL-certified teachers. But when it comes to bilingual teachers, Estrada Thomas said the limited number available in Texas and the competitive nature of the job search make the process all the more important to incentivize financially.

Green said that she, along with officials from local districts such as Leander and Austin ISDs, has submitted exceptions to the state as part of an ongoing effort to expand upon the kinds of resources available to students, specifically in the number of dual-language programs certified. Green said while Spanish is RRISD's most common language outside of English, the district would benefit from having programs available for Hindi, Korean, Tamil and other prevalent languages.


The greatest challenge—Green, Estrada Thomas and Spence each said—is securing the best educators possible from a limited number available.
“The hardest part for us is recruiting those teachers who are certified bilingual," Spence said. "Us, along with the majority of school districts in the state, we’re all kind of vying for a lot of the same teachers to fill those positions.”

By Kelsey Thompson
Kelsey Thompson is the reporter for Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto, where her work focuses on education, city government and community development. Originally from upstate New York, Kelsey relocated to Austin after graduating from Syracuse University in May 2019.


MOST RECENT

The location will offer physical therapy, orthopedic and sports injury rehabilitation as well as treatment for work-related injuries and disorders. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Baylor Scott & White to open Institute for Rehabilitation Outpatient Therapy in Manor

The location will offer physical therapy, orthopedic and sports injury rehabilitation as well as treatment for work-related injuries and disorders.

The postponement allows for new public notice postings made on the city's behalf under the updated proposal. (Kelsey Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Pflugerville City Council delays decision on 150-acre Pecan Street rezoning proposal

A vote on the Timmerman 2020 proposal is now anticipated to take place June 9.

The deaths bring Travis County's total fatalities during the pandemic to 88. (Community Impact staff)
Three new coronavirus deaths reported in Travis County May 26

The deaths bring Travis County's total fatalities during the pandemic to 88.

Austin-Travis County Health Authority Mark Escott gives a virtual coronavirus update to the Travis County Commissioners Court, led by interim Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. (Courtesy Travis County)
Travis County sees renewed upward trend in recent coronavirus cases, indicating a possible second surge

Weeks after Texas loosened public health restrictions, local authorities are seeing increased COVID-19 cases in Travis County.

Looking ahead toward fiscal year 2020-21, Finance Director Amy Good said the city is focusing its expenditures on maintaining existing services and personnel while also placing limitations on new programs and hirings. (John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper)
Pflugerville 'fiscally well-positioned' ahead of FY 2020-21 budget discussions, city officials say

Looking ahead toward fiscal year 2020-21, Finance Director Amy Good said the city is focusing its expenditures on maintaining existing services and personnel while also placing limitations on new programs and hirings.

Baylor Scott & White Medical Center - Centennial is located in Frisco. (Courtesy Baylor Scott & White)
Baylor Scott & White Health to lay off 1,200 after reporting 'drastic drop' in visits

The layoffs represent 3% of the health system’s workforce.

Starting May 29, water parks will be able to open up to 25% capacity. (Kelly Schafler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Gov. Abbott issues proclamation allowing water parks to open

Starting Friday, May 29, water parks will be allowed to open but must limit guests to 25% of their normal operating capacity.

Grab your sunscreen, Pflugerville: Typhoon Texas has announced its summer 2020 reopening date. (Courtesy Typhoon Texas)
Pflugerville's Typhoon Texas announces summer 2020 opening date

Grab your sunscreen, Pflugerville: Typhoon Texas has announced its summer 2020 reopening date.

Texas Spanish Academy reopens in Round Rock

Texas Spanish Academy offers full- and part-time programs for children ages six weeks through pre-K and is currently enrolling for summer and fall 2020.

Project Connect, Capital Metro's public transportation expansion plan, would include three light-rail lines running through the city and underground train stations downtown. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)
Is now the right time to rethink transit in Austin? Local leaders respond to community questions about Project Connect

Austin City Council and the Capital Metro board of directors will decide June 10 on whether to adopt Project Connect—the plan to revamp public transportation in the area.

The flute section of the Rouse High School marching band from Leander performs in this 2017 file photo. (Courtesy Leander ISD)
Texas schools may begin hosting sports workouts, band practices June 8

The University Interscholastic League released guidelines for allowing sports workouts and marching bands to practice.