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School board emphasizes ELL to senator
by Jacob Lane · December 18, 2013

Iowa State Senator Liz Mathis visited the WL School Board during its meeting, Dec. 2, where the English Language Learner (ELL) program became the main topic of discussion.

Mathis discussed state funding for ELL programs in Iowa schools, including a push by the Senate to fund ELL programs for more than four years per student.

Before, when a student began in the ELL program, the state helped fund that student's progress for a maximum of four years. Due to the 2013 Standings Bill, it's now five years, but that funding stops, regardless of whether the student continues in the program.

Mathis would like to see that funding time extended for more than five years per student. She cited that research indicates it takes anywhere from five to ten years to fully learn a language.

"In the Standings Bill in 2013 we did compromise, we agreed to a $4.5 million increase in ELL in fiscal year 2014, ELL was extended from four to five years."

Currently, all school districts in Iowa for the 2013/14 years receive $6,121 for each student in attendance. They get an additional .22 weighted amount for each ELL student, or an additional $1,367.

ELL pertains to students learning English, with their primary language being any other, not to be confused with West Liberty's Dual Language program.

"Just to give you a perspective, our district is about 20 percent ELL," said ELL Director Brenda Arthur-Miller during the meeting, "We have students in our school districts who have been considered an ESL student from the time they are in Pre-K and are still English learners as high school students, so, past that fifth year of funding."

She added that the program currently has 236 students. However, 127 of those students are past the fifth year mark, and are no longer eligible for the funding.

"The idea that you could really stretch that funding out is a very important idea to us, and I think would really benefit West Liberty," she said.

More funding would allow the district to restructure the program, such as the way the teaching is done. Specifically, they could hire more help. Also, it could be used to develop community outreach and help support families.

While Spanish is the most common primary language of ELL students, both the board and Auther-Miller want to be sure whatever the government decides, it shouldn't just pertain to one language.

"We're very blessed here, we have a lot of ELL's who speak Spanish as their primary language and we have a lot of people who are bilingual that can facilitate the communication between school and home," said Authur-Miller, "But if we have an influx of another language, where would we start?"

Finally, Mathis talked about the possibility of having a liaison that works with both the school and the community regarding ELL students, creating a friendly environment.

West Liberty used to employ someone in such a position, but the district was forced to scale down when the funds were not sufficient.

"You're talking about committing to the community, putting down roots, making sure that kids are comfortable in school, that they want to come back, creating this holistic environment to make sure achievement is possible," said Mathis.

She talked about the possibility of making current funding more accessible towards a liaison position.

All in all, the WL school board let Mathis know what it considers to be an important topic for the 2014 legislative period in Des Moines, which begins in January.

"I think that [the ELL program] generally says something for Iowa, that anyone can feel like they can come here and be welcomed, so I hope that would be a cue to the legislators to continue that for us," said School Board President Mike Duytschaver.

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