Iowa View: English Learners Deserve Extended Support

The following article by Vinh Nguyen, ELL program supervisor for Des Moines Public Schools, was published as a guest editorial by the Des Moines Register on Wednesday, April 3, 2013:

Vinh Nguyen, ELL program supervisor for Des Moines Public Schools

Iowa schools help non-English-speaking students succeed in the classroom through the English Language Learners (ELL) program. But while the program assists students in developing the necessary language skills to participate meaningfully in school and society, without appropriate support and flexibility, many of these students may soon be left behind.

This year, almost 25,000 English Language Learners are enrolled at school districts large and small throughout Iowa, a fivefold increase over the past 20 years.

While the ultimate goal of the program is to educate English Language Learners to the same rigorous standards as all students, it can be challenging because of the student’s prior experiences and circumstances before coming to Iowa.

For example, many of these new American students come from cultures that embrace formal education and believe education is an open door for opportunities, but in reality many of them did not have a chance to receive a formal education in their native literacy. In fact, more and more of those learning English are refugees from areas of conflict around the world, where education is a luxury and literacy is low or nonexistent in the refugee camps.

That means these students need intensive English language development to succeed in school. But regardless of their circumstances, these students are also expected to meet the same standards as all the other students in their school.

Under current law, ELL programs at school districts are provided with support for up to four years. While many students become proficient in that amount of time or less, new immigrant and refugee students often need considerably more time. In fact, most research shows that it takes seven to 10 years for English Language Learners to acquire the language proficiency to be successful academically.

This year, the Iowa General Assembly is considering a change that would provide school districts with additional support and flexibility to help ELL students become proficient. Recently a bill was approved unanimously by the Senate to help students not yet proficient in English, based on state-administered tests, participate in ELL for up to a maximum of seven years.

Iowa has a global reputation as a place welcoming and supportive of refugees. We can build on this well-deserved reputation by giving refugee students the tools and the needed support to be successful in school and to be productive in our state.

Everyone deserves an opportunity to realize the American Dream, but without supporting more students in learning English, we may be hindering the future of new and future Iowans.

The time is now for lawmakers in the House of Representatives and our governor to back an extension of support for English Language Learners. This will benefit not only Iowa’s growing number of immigrant and refugee students but also our state and society as a whole.

This article is also available on the Des Moines Register’s website.

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