Bill Calls For English Immersion In Schools

Helmut Schmidt, The Forum
Published Friday, January 19, 2007

Children in North Dakota who speak little or no English would be taught with immersion methods only, and funding would continue for more advanced English Language Learners under a bill introduced into the House.

House Bill 1292 is tagged with an estimated cost of nearly $12.4 million by the Department of Public Instruction.

In the last biennium, about $650,000 was earmarked to teach ELL students in Levels 1 through IV.

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The bill requires all English Language Learner students – most of whom are immigrants, but others who are American Indian, Hispanic or Hutterite – to be taught using immersion, in which all instruction is in English.

House sponsors of the bill are Reps. Jim Kasper (chief author), Bette Grande and Kathy Hawken, all Fargo Republicans, and Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo. Senate sponsors are Republicans Tom Fischer of Fargo and Rich Wardner of Dickinson.

“It’s just a proactive thing,” Grande said. “What we’re shooting for is a more comprehensive English immersion program.”

Wardner said the bill offers more effective learning for ELL students and doesn’t slow up learning for other students.

“I spend 32 years in education and I taught those kids that had a tough time in school,” he said. “I don’t feel it’s fair to stick them in a classroom with children who are speaking English and moving along. They’re going to be embarrassed at different times and they’re going to have some frustrations. I think it sets them back. I think they need to be separated until a certain point.”

HB1292’s funding distribution plan mirrors current ELL funding, with higher funding per student for Levels I and II and significantly lesser amounts for Levels III and IV.

That’s a major deviation from the Commission on Education Improvement plan to concentrate dollars on Level I and II ELL students – those who have no or limited English skills. Remaining funds then go to Level III students.

Mari Rasmussen, the director of the language acquisition program for DPI, is working with Kasper to trim the cost of the bill. But she said removing students from the classroom is expensive, particularly over time.

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“It can take children seven to 10 years to become proficient,” Rasmussen said.

She added that the program may also bump up against state and federal laws.

“You come into segregation issues. It’s a violation of a student’s rights,” she said. “The whole issue is the separation.”

Fargo and West Fargo schools get most of the state’s immigrants. They include ELL students in mainstream instruction, but also use techniques such as pull-outs (instruction, usually an hour or two, in a separate room) or sheltered instruction, in which studies are tailored to the English ability of the student.

In 2005-6, the state had about 3,305 ELL students in Levels 1-4, said Jerry Coleman, assistant director of school finance and organization for DPI. About 396 students were in levels I and II, he said. Level V students are considered proficient in English.

Hawken said the cost of the bill could make it tough to pass. She said she’s most concerned with getting Level I and II students up to speed, then putting remaining funds in Levels III and IV.

“We need to provide them with correct language instruction. A lot of these kids have never been in school before. They come from war-torn places where they’ve watched people get killed,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

David Hng

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