ASD Cuts Impact English Language Learners

8th Grader Nester Cunanan III stands in front of Mears Middle School in South Anchorage with his mother, Natalia Cunanan and his father Nester Cunanan Jr.
8th Grader Nester Cunanan III stands in front of Mears Middle School in South Anchorage with his mother, Natalia Cunanan and his father Nester Cunanan Jr.

The number of immigrant, refugee and other students who need help with English is growing parts of Anchorage, but the school district is spread thin because of last year’s cuts and they don’t have the money to hire any new teachers or tutors.

The stories in this series were produced through a fellowship from the Institute for Justice & Journalism.

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This fall, Nester Cunanan entered Mears Middle School in South Anchorage with the odds stacked against him.

“I learned English from the TV and watching Disney Channel. Yeah, I watched American movies a lot.”

Cunanan is what the Anchorage School District calls an ‘English Language Learner’, or ELL student. Today, the round-faced 8th grader with an easy smile, is registering for classes in the Mears gym. He just moved to Anchorage from the Philippines. He says his favorite subject is Science.

I’m hoping to try to dissect a frog, cause I haven’t dissected a frog yet.

In order to succeed in science classes, Cunanan will have to pickup an array of special, subject specific words that he likely didn’t pick up while watching American movies in the Philippines. It’s a steep learning curve. The graduation rate for ELL seniors has been stuck between 40 and 50 percent for years. And, unless something changes soon, the district’s goal to have a 90 percent graduation rate for all students by 2020 seems unlikely. Cunanan is on target to graduate with the class of 2018. He seems to speak well, but then this happens.

“I forgot the word …”

That’s typical says ELL Tutor Pam Strickland. And she says language isn’t the only thing the kids need to learn.

“The kids don’t know how the system works. You know, they need to know that you have to raise your hand or you know different cultural things that they bring that they need to know the difference here – and how the classroom runs. And then trying to help them understand make the connections between the vocabulary. A lot of subject matter will translate easily, like Math – the symbols are the same, but just translating the vocabulary. And then learning to fit in.”

Strickland, who bounces between Mears and nearby Goldenview is the only ELL tutor for both schools. She says that the number of students that she works with has tripled over the past few years, but the district hasn’t hired any more help. And that worries her.

“I think hiring more people would be a quick solution. If we’re gonna say we’re gonna service English Language Students, then I think that has to be what we’re doing and it’s hard to do when you have 80 students.”

It’s a problem that Phil Farson, who runs the English Language Learner Program for the Anchorage School District, is well aware of. He says the ELL population is shifting, growing in outlying areas.

“We’re seeing a gradual shift of ELL students into the Southern parts of the city. And schools that in the past that traditionally, very few or no ELL students are finding that they have 20, 30, 40 kids.”

But because of 25 million dollars in budget cuts last school year, Farson says he’s stretched so thin that he can’t hire additional staff and stay within budget. No ELL teachers were cut last year, but tutors were.

“Our overall budget allocation for this coming school year is substantially less than it was the previous year. In fact, all together, the equivalent of about 10 positions were lost in terms of what we call our para-professionals, or our tutors.”

That leaves less staff for more kids — about 100 tutors for around 56-hundred ELL students in the district.
Back at Mears, Valerie Davidson is registering her daughter, Kylie. Her daughter is Yup’ik, and she speaks English well. But Davidson is passionate about the importance of providing support for ELL students. She makes her point by asking me a question in Yup’ik:

“You ready? Yup’ik question … wow, so since you didn’t answer, I’m afraid that you’re not going to be able to be in the advanced classes. And you’re not going to be able to get the most out of your education because I just asked you if you understood. And since you didn’t respond, you’re just not going to advance with the rest of the kids.”

Davidson says having enough English language teachers and tutors is critical to insuring that every student gets an equal chance at an education. Back on the other side of the gym, Cunanan says he’s excited to start school, but you can hear some uncertainty in his voice.

“Yeah, cause I guess I’ll have new friends here and a new experience.”

Cunnanan says he hopes to graduate from high school, go to college and maybe become a scientist. Administrators says that they anticipate additional budget cuts this school year, no word yet on whether programs for English Language Learners will be included.

Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage.

Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email.

Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.

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