Stephen Wall, Staff Writer
Posted: 01/30/2010 02:59:01 PM PST

San Bernardino County public schools are spending more than $34 million in state and federal money this school year to educate English learners, a group whose population has doubled since 1995.

That amount doesn’t include additional funding for services and programs available to English learners as well as other students.

Fueled by skyrocketing immigration over the past 15 years, the growth is forcing school districts to make dramatic changes in the classroom.

Districts are making huge investments in teacher preparation and training, hiring bilingual aides and purchasing bilingual materials to help teachers handle the demographic shift.

Some are concerned about the need to focus limited resources on students who may be in the country illegally or whose parents are illegal immigrants. Federal law requires public schools to provide a free kindergarten through 12th grade education to all students regardless of immigration status.

“A lot of parents came here illegally with their children or had children born here. It’s creating a huge burden on the state,” said Assemblyman Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, whose district includes Victorville and the High Desert. “We have to have so many of these classes that it takes away from the core classes that I’d like to fund.”

Gil Navarro, a member of the San Bernardino County board of education, said that immigrant students and English learners are not a drain on the educational system.

“I get tired of people complaining about English learners receiving lawful services when our school districts are just following federal laws,” Navarro said. “Taxpayer money is being put to good use because the funding will provide an educated workforce.”

More than one-in-five kindergarten through 12th grade students in the county public school system is an English learner, according to the state Department of Education. Five school districts have English learner enrollments of at least 25 percent. The overwhelming majority of English learners – 94 percent – identify Spanish as their first language.

“With the growth, we have had to relook at how we approach our English learners,” said Martha Duenas, coordinator of the Department of English Learner Services for the Fontana Unified School District. Nearly four-in-10 Fontana Unified students is an English learner.

“It’s a challenge for schools to meet the needs of English learners,” said Bertha Arreguin, director of language support services for the Colton Joint Unified School District, where one-quarter of students are English learners.

Most English learners were born in the United States, but their parents came here during the immigration boom that started in the 1980s, intensified in the 1990s and continued through the last decade, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C.

The school-age population in the United States, which now stands at about 53 million, is expected to reach 58 million by 2020.

More than 80 percent of that growth – about 4.5 million kids – will be the children of immigrant parents, the center projects.

Growing up in immigrant families where English is not spoken at home puts added pressure on schools to help students meet increasingly rigorous academic requirements.

“Nationally, schools and school districts are going to be faced with more and more students who will need English learner services,” said Richard Fry, senior research associate at the center.

Locally, school districts receive three pots of state and federal money to specifically to educate students with limited English skills.

Districts get an average of $244 per student from the state in economic impact aid. They also receive about $95 per student in federal Title III funds for immigrant students. An additional $100 per student is available for pupils in grades four through eight from the state-funded English Language Acquisition Program.

The three funding sources total $34.4 million when multiplied the number of students in each category.

English learners often use other services such as free and reduced lunch programs that are not included in that cost, school officials say.

There are other pools of money that support English learners who receive special education, as well as English learners who are in the Gifted and Talented Education program.

“It’s money well-spent because the majority of these students are U.S. citizens,” said Lupe Andrade, director of English learner programs in the Rialto Unified School District, where nearly one-in-three students is an English learner.

“We want them to leave our educational system well-educated so they can contribute well to our economy,” Andrade said. “Language shouldn’t be a barrier to educating somebody.”

While programs have their differences, many districts spend their English learner money in similar ways.

A large chunk is devoted to staff development to provide teachers with strategies to engage English learners. Administrators are also trained to identify the needs of English learners.

Many districts have teacher coaches specializing in English learner students who act as a resource for their colleagues and supplemental classroom supplies.

Districts also set aside time every day for intensive speaking, listening, reading and writing in English.

Officials say support systems are critical to help districts whose large numbers of English learner students are one reason for their low test scores.

“We’ve had good growth (in test scores) with English learners,” said Daniel Arellano, director of English learner programs for the San Bernardino City Unified School District, which has a 33-percent English learner population.

“We’re aren’t anywhere near where we should be,” Arellano said, “but we are much better than we were.”

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