Tuesday, November 30, 2004


‘’Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, your English Language Learners challenging my public schools’ ability to educate. . . .’’

Of course, Emma Lazarus never ghost-wrote that last part for the Statue of Liberty, but that’s the effect of immigration, one of the hottest issues in K-12 education today.

Nebraska is reportedly second in the nation, behind South Carolina, in the growth of foreign nationals attending public schools and putting extra pressure on everything from staffing to lunchroom etiquette.

Within the state, the northeast Nebraska of Norfolk, population 24,000, is No. 1 in the growth of migrant pupils. It posted a 44 percent increase in that student population since the 2000-01 school year, according to the Nebraska Department of Education. Statewide, non-English speaking students have increased from 3,737 to 5,698 in four years, with additional school spending to match.

The influx of Hispanics to Lexington, Neb., has been going on for years, and indeed, that city has one of the largest proportional migrant school populations, with 510 children. Grand Island’s 372 and South Sioux City’s 286 are also significantly larger than in past years.

Of the 4,200 students in the Norfolk Public Schools, 25 percent are minorities, chiefly Hispanics. An unknown percentage of those are illegal aliens, a student population that is said to be inflating our nation’s school expenses by $7.4 billion a year. But neither Norfolk nor any other school district can ask about an enrollee’s citizenship status because of the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Phyler v. Doe. It said that under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, public schools can’t prohibit any children an education.

What is known, though, is that in Norfolk, 194 students are from foreign countries and have been in the U.S. fewer than three years. In Norfolk, the three main language groups are from Mexico, the Sudan, and Somalia.

According to Doug Witte, director of student services, even though the new arrivals have pushed the free and reduced lunch rate to 33 percent, a key poverty indicator, and the student mobility rate to 40 percent, ‘’our native students are not suffering a deficit in learning because of our English Language Learners.’’

However, Witte said, “It’s very high demand on our teachers.’’ No kidding.

With a philosophy of keeping each student’s home language active, yet melding them into the mainstream classroom as quickly as possible, the Norfolk program’s biggest need is to find interpreters for the Nuer language of the Sudanese children and parents, and the many tribal dialects of the Somalians.

He said Norfolk’s situation is nothing compared to the Lincoln Public Schools, with 1,041 immigrants whose families speak something like 60 different languages, or the Omaha Public Schools, with 1,823 immigrants, according to the State Ed Department.

Funding for the additional staff that the trend has required is met in part by federal tax dollars, including Title III of the No Child Left Behind act, Witte said.

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