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Miss. schools struggle to serve non-English speaking students

By Kate Royals

Mississippi Today

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.

Struggling to teach

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.

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.

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.”