A growing language gap faces local educators as the percentage of students speaking limited English has risen in metro Atlanta schools and white student enrollment has declined.
The rise in limited-English students is driven primarily by the boom in the Hispanic population in the 28-county metro area. That population has nearly doubled over the past decade. During roughly that same period, the enrollment of Hispanic students has more than tripled — from about 45,000 in 2000 to about 150,000 in 2012 — according to an analysis of U.S. census and school data by the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Now a partnership between the Atlanta Speech School and its Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, the Goizueta Foundation, and the Georgia Department of Education is trying to close that language gap by shaving five years off the average time it takes those students to become proficient in English.
“This is our moon shot,” said Comer Yates, executive director of the Atlanta Speech School and a leader in the partnership, known as the Georgia Coalition for English Learners. According to Yates, the average student speaking limited English in Georgia does not read to grade level until the eighth grade.
The coalition’s aim is that by 2020 those students will be accomplished in English by third grade.
Not being proficient in English until eighth grade can have devastating consequences. Research shows those students are more likely to drop out of school and less likely to succeed in life, Yates said. Typically, in the first three grades students learn to read. After that, they read to learn.
If students in third grade are lagging in reading, they have more difficulty with every subject. That standard applies to every student, whether English is their first language or not. At least one group, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, already has a program in the state — the Georgia Campaign for Grade-Level Reading — trying to improve the speed at which all Georgia students learn to read.
At a recent coalition meeting Yates’ group laid out a strategy that will include a public relations campaign noting the economic benefit to the state when students are proficient in two languages, and a lobbying campaign to get support in the Legislature.
The coalition is focusing on the estimated 84,000 non-English-speaking learners in the state, out of an estimated total student population of 1.7 million, said Cori Alston, program manager for the DOE’s English for Speakers of Other Languages and Title III units. More than three-fourths (78 percent) of ESOL students in the state are Hispanic. The next largest group is Vietnamese, only 3 percent.
Even though Hispanic enrollment jumped more than 100,000 in metro Atlanta between 2000 and 2012, according to the ARC’s analysis, many of those students are U.S.-born and fluent in English when they start school. There are about 60,000 ESOL students — from all groups — in metro Atlanta, according to the DOE.
The challenge starts at home, Alston said. Language research shows that parents whose first language is not English should not force their children to speak English, but rather should teach them their native language first — contrary to what was once believed and encouraged by educators.
Those parents are likely to be limited in English, so it is difficult for them to convey complex ideas and words — such as “integrity” or “trust” — to their children, the research shows.
It’s better, Alston said, if the parents teach those words and ideas in their first language. “When the child gets to school, all the child has to do is translate this word into another language.”
Another challenge for school districts is shrinking federal grants for ESOL, Alston said.
In 2010 Georgia received about $15 million in federal funds to teach English in school to students limited in speaking the language. Next year, because of budget cuts known as sequestration, that number will drop to $13.8 million.
“It’s going to be more difficult, because our English learner population is growing about 4 percent a year,” Alston said.
Metro Atlanta school districts with 500 or more students limited in speaking English
Atlanta Public Schools 1,551