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Tue August 12, 2014

What JCPS Is Doing to Accommodate 'Explosive Growth' In 'English as a Second Language' Students

Nurradin Hussein at home this summer with his family.  He quickly learned English and he credits the Newcomer Academy, which serves refugee students and others who need extra supports.
Nurradin Hussein at home this summer with his family. He quickly learned English and he credits the Newcomer Academy, which serves refugee students and others who need extra supports.
Credit Eleanor Hasken/LPM

 Nurradin Hussein, 18, knew several languages when he arrived in Louisville last year.

English wasn't one of them.

“When I go to class, I quiet,” said Hussein, whose family were refugees in Malaysia after fleeing anti-Muslim violence in Burma. “And I listen. But I don’t understand what [the] teacher is talking about.”

The transition into a new city for refugees can be tricky, especially when it comes to school—and  even more so when English isn't the student's primary language. Educators classify these young people as "English as a second language" students, and Jefferson County Public Schools has a host of programs meant to help those students succeed in class.

ESL students are Jefferson County Public Schools' fastest growing demographic—and major drivers of that growth are unaccompanied minors crossing the southwestern U.S. border and refugees like Hussein, officials say.

“We’ve really had explosive growth,” said Jayne Kraemer, the ESL staff developer for JCPS.  

The number of ESL students has nearly doubled in the past decade to about 4,800, she said. JCPS has a total of about 100,000 students. 

In 2013, Hussein’s and his family were among the 2,177 refugees resettled in Louisville. While that’s a slight increase from the previous year, the number of refugee minors continues trending upwards at a greater pace. Kentucky's refugee services leaders expect that trend to continue this year.

Credit Kentucky Refugee Ministries

Kentucky’s limited-English population is at just 3 percent, according to the state education department. That pales in comparison to border states like California, where nearly a quarter of students are classified as "English language learners." But Kentucky's limited-English population increased 306 percent from 2000 and 2012, a rate in the U.S. second only to South Carolina, according to a report last year from the Annenberg Institute.


Because of the growth, JCPS is expanding a program that offers more intensive support to students whose primary language at home isn’t English.

For example, Hussein quickly learned English. He credits JCPS' Newcomer Academy, which serves refugee students and others who need extensive help because of language barriers.

“We have grown so much the past year,” said Gwen Snow, associate principal of Newcomer Academy, which is based in the Academy at Shawnee in West Louisville.

The growth surprised everyone, she said.

Newcomer ended the 2012-2013 school year with 377 students. When school ended this last spring, it had over 500 students. Snow said the school had to expand space in the middle of the year.

Part of that growth is because more refugee children like Hussein are being resettled in Louisville. But Snow said many kids coming from Central America are "unaccompanied minors," who have been the center of a recent national political debate. 

Assistant​ Principal Gwen Snow guides students and their parents into a classroom on Monday at the Newcomer Academy.
Assistant​ Principal Gwen Snow guides students and their parents into a classroom on Monday at the Newcomer Academy.
Credit Eleanor Hasken/LPM

Aside from Newcomer Academy, JCPS also strategically places ESL programs where data indicates the greatest needs. 

JCPS officials know where these students live in Jefferson County. That’s why the district has strategically placed its nearly 70 ESL programs in specific areas to accommodate these students, Kraemer said.

This year, Iroquois High School, which is in the south Louisville neighborhood where many Newcomer students live, will serve as host to the district’s first International Academy. The program will offer a program similar to Newcomer.

“They live there and that’s the school where they would end up transitioning out to anyway," Snow said.

Newcomer only serves students up to 10th grade. Then students are expected to transition into another high school. At Iroquois, students who attend the academy will be able to transition directly into the school.

Iroquois Principal Chris Perkins said he expects 100 new students to participate in the International Academy.

“It’s kind of exciting. We’re kind of anxious too because there are many of us who haven’t had the opportunity to work with those circumstances before, so it’s hard to anticipate all that they’re going need,” said Perkins.

Eight years ago, when Perkins arrived at Iroquois, the school's population was made up of about 30 international students, he said. With the addition of the International Academy, he expects to have around 280 international students this year—most of them seeking ESL services, he said.

Jefferson County Public Schools budgeted more than $10 million to educate ESL students; $2.2 million of that will come from state funding, according to this year's JCPS budget.

Finding Teachers

JCPS faces more challenges with ESL students than finding the right school building for them—the school district must also find teachers with the right credentials to teach them, said Kraemer.

That’s partly because of state’s rules for who can teach ESL.

In Kentucky, ESL teachers must have both a teaching certificate and a special endorsement, which require extra time in school. In  Ohio, Tennessee and Indiana, teachers can have a primary teacher certification in ESL education, said Elizabeth Patton, coordinator for the University of Louisville’s ESL program.

Kentucky's system of requiring two certifications has its benefits and drabacks.

Teachers must master two content areas (the initial teacher certification and an ESL add-on), but teachers must be convinced it’s worth pursuing. It also means that teachers coming from outside Kentucky may have challenges getting hired here, Patton said.

However, the pass rate for U of L’s ESL program is 98 percent and if teachers do choose to get the ESL add-on, “they have a very, very good chance of getting a job,” she said.

Credit Eleanor Hasken/LPM

For Hussein and others, Newcomer Academy has helped give them a better chance once they transition to another school (Newcomer also helps integrate and explain the American culture). For some students who enter the public school system behind in their studies, they can find themselves racing to graduate before aging out at 21.

This school year, Hussein will attend Fern Creek High School. He’ll continue receiving ESL services, but he’ll receive less attention than at Newcomer.

And that’s a challenge he said he’s prepared to meet.

This story was part of WFPL's education news special on the eve of the 2014-15 JCPS school year. You can hear the full show here.