District 191 scrutinizes ESL program

/ 11 June 2012 / jennifer

John Gessner, MN Sun ThisWeek,  June 11, 2012 –

Graduation rates fell in recent years

A nosedive in graduation rates among English as a second language students in District 191 is a key reason for a review of the ESL program that has district officials pledging to improve it.

The review, which included on-site observations and interviews by state Department of Education officials, was presented to the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School Board on June 7.

It comes as a “slap in the face,” Board Member Jim Schmid said.

“There’s a lot of disturbing information in that report,” Board Member Bob VandenBoom said.

The graduation rate among ESL students dropped steadily from 78 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 2010. It rebounded to 43 percent 2011.

The statistics aren’t all gloomy. According to the report, District 191 is ahead of the state and three comparable districts in the percentage of students with limited English skills who meet proficiency standards on state reading tests. A total of 45.5 percent of tested students reached proficiency in 2011, ahead of limited-English students statewide and in Bloomington, Mounds View and North St. Paul/Maplewood.

But the number of students proficient in reading has improved only 5 percent since 2007, which calls for improvement, said Kathy Funston, director of curriculum.

Testing results also show an eventual slide in proficiency as students progress from first grade to fifth.

Many ESL students are ahead of where the district has placed them. Of the 1,366 students who took the ACCESS test of English proficiency in February and May, 67 percent scored higher than their placement on the district’s 1 to 5 scale. A total of 24 percent were accurately placed, and only 9 percent were lower than their placement.

Of the 67 percent, 355 students, or 39 percent, are candidates for exiting ESL.

Those positive numbers are hard to square with the poor graduation rates, Board Member Paula Teiken said.

Funston cautioned against linking ESL graduation rates too closely with the ESL program.

Graduation rates are “all of our responsibility,” she said.

“Graduation rates are not a direct reflection of the quality and expertise of what’s going on in classrooms with our ESL staff,” she said.

Problems, fixes

The Department of Education review is part of an internal review of a program that has already undergone plenty of self-scrutiny in recent years.

Still, the department found problems in several areas, including the way the district admits and releases students from ESL and its level of communication with ESL parents.

For example, criteria for identifying ESL students are unclear and inconsistently applied throughout the district, the department said.

Criteria and processes for transitioning students out of ESL are also unclear and inconsistent, and based heavily on teacher opinion.

The district lacks a comprehensive written plan of ESL services, the department found. Except for a cultural liaison at Burnsville High School, the district doesn’t have bilingual staffers to communicate with parents.

And it has no plan to seek input from ESL parents, the department said.

The district is pledging improvements, including more academic services to students with greater ESL needs, consistent procedures, a monitoring and evaluation system and a strong Internet presence in multiple languages.

Plans to implement districtwide a parent-involvement plan provided by the Parent Institute for Quality Education will also help, Funston said.