DENVER — When Janice Anderson, a fourth-grade teacher at Pennock Elementary school in Brighton, Colorado, stands before the 30 students in her class, she’s teaching a collection of radically different 9 years olds with little to no extra help.
“There is zero support in the classroom right now for [English-language learning],” said Anderson. “It was literally a matter of luck that I came into the classroom with that training and background.”
Anderson added that because the same lack of personnel and training extends much of the time to special education students, it’s virtually impossible for her to provide the level of individualized attention students need to thrive.
In Anderson’s district roughly 8 percent of students require special education services, 12 percent are learning English as a second language and 30 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunch. At just over $6,000, the district’s per-pupil funding was lower in 2012 than it was in 2008.
Across Colorado, the number of kids learning to speak and read English at school is even higher.
“Over the last two decades, Colorado’s population of English-language learners nearly tripled,” said Curtis Hubbard, a spokesperson for Colorado Commits to Kids. “At 125,000, English-language learners now comprise over 14 percent of the student population in the state.”
[pullquote]Critics are pushing a message that non-native speaking students are ‘not our kids.’ They’re all our kids.[/pullquote]
Last week, the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization (CLLARO) announced its support for Amendment 66 — the proposed $1 billion income tax increase backed by the Colorado Commits to Kids campaign.
CLLARO executive director Amanda Gonzalez called the proposed investment in English-language learners and at-risk students “historic.”
“Under Amendment 66, [English-learning] funding increases to $157 million from $14 million, and students can receive it for five years instead of only two years,” she said.
Studies show that this would bring Colorado just up to standard. Acquiring academic english proficiency takes 4 to 7 years.
“One thing our community knows is that we’re willing to invest in our children’s education,” said State Representative Joe Salazar. “Our greatest hope is that our community will understand the importance of this investment and vote for it.”
Stephanie Solano, a program director at CLLARO, added that it’s not just the extra funding for non-native English speakers that makes Amendment 66 an attractive option for her and for Colorado’s Latino community.
“As a Latina single mother of two, it’s huge that the amendment would fund preschool and full-day kindergarten,” she said. “I know how hard it can be to work and pay for preschool.”
Solano added that, right now, teachers are scrambling to meet the needs of their students. The legislation Amendment 66 would fund specifically directs extra money to the schools those students attend.
“Right now these students and others are left out,” she said. “This would go a long way towards creating more equality.”
Opponents of the measure have pointed out that the majority of Colorado students aren’t English-language learners and worry that the new funding formula would unfairly direct funds away from less-diverse districts.
“Some of the wealthy districts around Denver haven’t been as supportive of this change as some might hope,” said education economist Paul Teske. “That’s a challenge for the bill, especially when concern is coming from a place like Boulder, where they’re usually in favor of tax increases for education.”
Salazar cautioned against criticism of Amendment 66 that promote a message that non-native speaking students are “not our kids.” They’re all our kids, he said.
“When we talk about 66, the good it will do, we’re talking about all kids — rural kids, kids who are white, black, latino, native american,” he said.
If the amendment passes, the average Colorado family would pay $133 more in annual income tax. Salazar said that, for many families, that’s less than they currently pay in school fees so that their kids can participate in so-called special activities like playing musical instruments, running science experiments, or even getting to school in the morning.
“How many people are paying now to bus their kids to school in Douglas county?” Salazar asked. “That’s 50 cents each way, every day.”
[ Photo by U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan ]