Suddenly having extra money is a good problem to have, and the director of Indianapolis Public Schools’ English language learning programs, Jessica Feeser, had it this summer.
She got busy planning to bolster the district’s support for children who are still learning English.
“It’s been so wonderful to get the increase in funding,” she said.
In April, a joint project by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media called Lost In Translation revealed dramatic growth in the number of English language learners in Indianapolis. In fact, Marion County has experienced a more than 200 percent growth in English learners since 2001 to about 13,000.
The series caught the attention of lawmakers, who doubled the dollars set aside in the state budget to support English language learning programs to $11 million just before the budget was approved. The new budget went into effect on July 1.
That meant school districts this summer got an unexpected bonus: about twice as much money starting this school year that immediately be used to add support English language learners.
Feeser and IPS quickly developed a plan. The district, which last year spent about $400,000 on English language learning programs, this year has $836,000 in state aid for English language learning.
The first thing the district did was speed up a plan to train teachers in what is known as the “Sheltered Instruction Observational Protocol” or SIOP, an intense program of instruction for classroom teachers that helps them craft lessons that work better for language learners, speak in ways that promote learning and better use non-verbal communication. Other schools have found the approach useful to improve learning as children also learn English.
The district has three English language learning specialists on staff now, Feeser said, but she plans to use some of the new funding to hire two more, including a SIOP and data specialist to help with that roll out.
In addition, Feeser set aside dollars for a project she is developing with Marian University that help district teaching assistants who are bilingual earn teaching credentials.
“I put funds aside, with this increase in funding, to support that to help pay the costs of tuition,” Feeser said. “These are people who work in our district who are committed to our students.”
That’s the sort of progress that state officials hoped to see come from the additional money, said Charlie Geier, who heads up the Indiana Department of Education’s work on English language learning.
“They’re being innovative,” he said. “That’s great. That’s exactly what we had envisioned.”
Haley Frischkorn, the English as a New Language program coordinator at Washington Township, said her district also saw per-student aid for English language learners double to $175 per student from $87 per student last year. Overall the district’s state aid for her program jumped to more than $304,000 this year from about $143,000 last year.
Like IPS, Washington Township used the money to hire new specialists to work as coaches to help teachers learn strategies to better help children who are still learning English at schools with large numbers of foreign-speaking students.
She hired two teachers who will work part time to support four elementary schools — Nora, Greenbriar, Spring Hill and Fox Hill. A third coach will work primarily at North Central High School but also provide support in middle schools.
“I could have hired a teacher, but that teacher can only be in one building,” Frischkorn said. “I thought this year we needed the flexibility to help teachers where needs arise.”
Classroom teachers need support because there just aren’t enough teachers training in English language learning to go around, she said. The ones assigned to elementary schools have caseloads that can exceed 100 students.
That means they can’t always provide as much support as classroom teachers need.
“They are doing their jobs really well but their kids have a lot of needs,” Frischkorn said.
Another outgrowth of the work to improving learning for English language learners is cross-district cooperation. Feeser and Frischkorn have started up a regular meeting of district directors that so far also includes Perry Township and Hamilton Southeastern, Frischkorn’s former employer.
They hope to expand the group so districts can learn more from each other.
“The dream is meeting with all the townships and IPS,” Frischkorn said. “It is so beneficial to hear what other people are doing and what their needs are.”
It’s only been three years that the state began holding collaboration meetings for directors of language learning programs, Geier said, so he’s glad to see the idea spreading to the local level.
The push for more services in Marion County has been mirrored in other parts of the state, he said. Even some of Indiana’s smallest districts are using the extra aid to try to improve the quality of their programs so language learners get proficient at English more quickly and also make faster gains in their academic subjects.
That’s important because Indiana expects to see even more English language learners over the next several years, he said.
“Across the state we are seeing people making really strong investments to meet current demand,” Geier said, “but also thinking about future demand from what the data is telling us that we will continue to see this grow potentially.”