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A Closer Look at Austin's English Language Learners

About 850,000 students in Texas are English language learners. That’s one in every six students, and their numbers are growing fast.

Last year, the State of Texas spent an average of $234 per English learning student.  By contrast, the Austin school district spent nearly $1,300 dollars per English learning student. That's five times the state average.

Part of AISD's extra spending comes from a new language program. In this two-way, dual-language program, half of the students are English learners and the other half are native English speakers. The goal is for English learners to develop both English and their primary language, while native speakers learn a new one.

Credit Ann Choi, KUT News
This graph compares student enrollment, employed teachers and program costs between AISD's Bilingual/ESL programming and overall state programming by percentage.

This new program costs more to operate, but AISD decided it was worth the money.

“The district supplements what the state is already giving for our English language learners, but our two-way programs require native English speakers. And for them to participate, that money has to be generated locally," says Martha Garza, assistant director of Dual Language for AISD.

Nine AISD elementary schools have two-way dual-language programs. Wooten Elementary School in Northwest Austin was one of the first schools to implement the program.  In their classrooms, students get class instruction in English on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and Spanish on Tuesday and Thursday.

Ronald Bolek, Wooten Elementary principal and a member of AISD’s Language Learner Advisory committee, says it’s too early to evaluate the program because students haven’t taken their State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams yet.

Still, students in the dual language program scored 50 percent higher in English proficiency on other state certified tests, including the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS).

After all, learning a language alone is not the program’s ultimate goal.

“The primary goal of dual-language is academic achievement in the core content areas using and acquiring two languages," Bolek says.

Advocates for dual-language programs say there are numbers to show that dual-language programs benefit both English learners and native speakers. Bobbi Houtchens is with National Council of Teachers of English in San Bernardino, California.

“In any type of standardized test given in English, both groups far outscored English-only kids. So where the English-only kids might score 50 percentile, which is average, the native speakers and the English learners they end up scoring the 75 percentile," Houtchens says.

But some argue that how the data is gathered and analyzed may not accurately reflect how those students are performing. Robert Vandervoort is the executive director for a group called ProEnglish in Arlington, VA, which calls for ending bilingual education.

“You have to keep in mind that since the program has been around for 30 years, you have a group of bilingual education people who have invested interest in keeping this program going. It puts a certain bias in terms of how they look at whether the program is effective or not,” Vandervoort says

The group argues that English-immersion programs – where students get instruction only in English – offer faster results, reduce segregation and are cheaper than dual-language programs.

Still, AISD is moving ahead with its programs. It’s one of few school districts that provide dual-language courses in languages other than Spanish, such as Vietnamese. This fall, the district will start a dual-language course taught in Mandarin for the first time.

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