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January 06, 2013 10:20 PM

Funding ESL

Huron, SD

As the legislative session starts this week, a lot of groups will be asking lawmakers for money before the budget is finalized. Some schools with students learning English as a second language will be among them. They've tried to receive state funding for the English as a Second Language program in the past but haven't been successful.

The life stories of students in the Huron School District have grown more and more diverse in recent years. Senior Dah Dah Po’s story brings you back to southeast Asia through a refugee camp and into a war-torn country.

"When I was small, we always had to run from them. They tried to like catch us. And we couldn't go to school because of that," Po said.

And Po's story is just one of many. Whether their story brings them back to Asia, Mexico or another part of the world, nearly a third of Huron's student body is made of kids that have come from other countries and would be considered English Learners. That situation can be tough.

"Yes, very tough," Po said. "You don't know any people; you don't know what their life is like."

Po started school a couple weeks after coming to America. That was a hard adjustment as well which is why schools have ESL programs to help give English Learners support.

Huron has more than 670 students in its ESL program which has a few steps. Students are first immersed where the school focuses on teaching English. Then, they enter sheltered classrooms which focus on school curriculum while still developing English skills. Finally students proceed in the mainstream setting.

But, this support comes with a cost.

“We have been able to track the expenses. And consistently for us to be able to meet their needs and get them on track, it's exceeding $1,000 per year, per student," Huron superintendent Terry Nebelsick said.

And district stats show that per-student number has remained consistent regardless of the number of students in the ESL program. And the cost is the same for a student in an immersed setting or sheltered.

And that's why Nebelsick is asking for money from the state to help pay the bill.

"We've been telling the story for two years and we're nearing the point of crisis," Nebelsick said.

“In our budget in Huron, we're spending $750,000 on our ESL program," business manager Kelly Christopherson said.

Christopherson has charts showing what that's doing to the school budget which will soon be out of funds if something doesn't change.

But state Senator-elect Jim White of Huron says this year it might.

"The bill that we're proposing would not only help the present schools and communities that are involved with the ESL process but it sets a parameter for the future," White said.

In short, White is asking lawmakers to support a plan that would test students' English proficiency. If students' scores fall within a certain range they'd be considered English Learners. And schools would get 25 percent more in state funding for each EL student.

A bill to provide state funding for ESL programs came up last year but White says lawmakers needed more information which a summer study has provided. He can't say for sure how this year's proposal will fare.

"Everyone in that legislative body has their own opinion. I think that there is a general feeling that this is an expense that is legitimate," White said.

As administrators in the Huron school stand behind the proposal, they also take the position that English Learners have been a positive addition to the district. Many of their parents came to the community to fill jobs.

“The state has seen a significant gain in their sales tax from the areas where the new workforce exists. All we're asking is that a portion of that be used to pay the services of the new citizens that come with that workforce," Nebelsick said.

As he prepares to graduate at the end of this semester, Po's story continents working as an interpreter and translator at times. He plans to attend college for computer science next year.

"Yeah, I have a lot to learn," Po said.

If they have enough EL students, districts can receive some federal funding. But Huron administrators say it isn't enough to cover the additional costs and schools can only spend the money on certain parts of an ESL program such as student supplies and staff development.

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