Nov. 7, 2005 A lack of qualified teachers is the biggest challenge currently facing the territory's English as a Second Language program, according to Education Commissioner Noreen Michael.
At an Education, Culture and Youth Committee tmeeting Monday, Michael said the local Education Department is losing a number of English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers due to retirement or resignation. he department has not been able to find individuals who are qualified enough to teach ESL, she said, despite active recruiting efforts.
After the meeting, Michael said the shortage is a nationwide trend.
"There are also just not a lot of people applying for the program in general," she said. "Its the same thing with special education teachers no one wants to do it."
Consequently, the lack of staff has left the territory with only 20 qualified bilingual teachers who have to divide themselves between the 321 students enrolled in the program, said Migdalia Arthurton, ESL coordinator for St. Thomas and St. John. While this may seem like a surmountable task with a ratio of about 16 students per teacher Michael said it is nothing when one considers there are approximately 700 students in the territory who do not speak English at home.
Michael said the teacher shortage has further "forced" her department to reorganize the services being offered to ESL students. Instead of offering the program in all public schools, for example, Michael said specific schools have been chosen to host the program. Participating students are assigned to the school closest to them, regardless of school zoning. Children are also bussed to six schools on St. Thomas and eight on St. Croix.
After conducting a review of school ESL programs in June, the Board of Education further determined that many of these programs are not adequately functioning, said Tragenza Roach, the board's executive director. Roach gave senators a list of the education system's "trouble-spots," including St. Croix's Alexander Henderson, Pearl B. Larsen, and Claude O. Marco schools.
"The principal of Pearl B. Larsen even told me personally that they had no bilingual teacher," Roach told senators.
Reiterating the Department of Education's need for ESL teachers, Roach explained that there are an increasing number of students enrolling in the program each year. "But the assignment of students to the program is not going smoothly because of the program's deficiencies in the schools," Roach said.
Roach said the Board of Education also noticed there is a complete absence of the program in grades K-2 in many St. Croix elementary schools. This is a problem, Roach said, because teaching is needed on all levels.
"There are kids at that age who come in speaking Spanish, for example, but don't know how to read and write in Spanish. These are the things that need to be addressed," he said.
However, when asked by Sen. Roosevelt C. David what the Board of Education is doing to remedy the problems, Roach said there hasn't been much discussion on the matter as yet. In addition, Roach said the board had submitted its assessment of the ELS program to the Education Department, but has not received confirmation that any changes are going to happen.
Michael also could not provide information on the success rate of the program in schools, or statistics relating to how many ELS students drop out of school yearly, engage in criminal activity, or die.
"That's the kind of information I would like to know," Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said. "If the programs aren't functioning in the schools, who's to know how many of these kids are dropping out because they can't deal with the language barrier."
Michael did, however, give some local demographics relating to the population of ESL students, with 81 percent speaking Spanish, 14 percent speaking Creole, 3 percent speaking Arabic, and 2 percent speaking French.
In terms of resources, Michael added ESL programs need a formal evaluation tool that the districts can use to monitor the program at various schools. The U.S. Education Department will provide assistance on the matter, she said, and should be able to develop something that can be used during the next school year.
A new set of criteria that the Education Department can use to test the proficiency level of students is also needed. The Language Assessment Scales (LAS) currently used by the department doesn't really determine the progress of ELS students, Michael said, and it is necessary to develop high quality language instruction programs which monitor the students based on academic content and language proficiency standards.
Present at Monday's meeting were Sens. David, Liston Davis, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Shawn-Michael Malone, Nelson, and Usie R. Richards. Sen. Louis P. Hill was absent.
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