From an economic standpoint, costs go down when people can take care of themselves. Rather than using taxes to lift up the stragglers left behind, we can use these valuable resources for programs that benefit the entire community. From a business and community standpoint, ELL programs reduce the number of students who might drop out, turn to crime or become wards of the state. The ability of our young people to obtain, hold and advance in jobs and be independent, productive members of society is directly related to their success in school and graduation from high school. ELL programs support this type of success.
In the past we have relied on taxes from gaming and construction to support the state — industries that do not require an advanced education. We can no longer do this. Corporations that are moving here and helping our economy rebound are looking at the quality of education we offer and the pool of qualified employees in our community. If we do not invest in our education system, it will affect our ability to attract the best corporations.
For these reasons and more ELL programs are one of the most important components supporting the success of the Washoe County schools. This is a result of our area’s demographic makeup. Let me preface this by saying that personal views about diversity, whatever they may be, cannot change the reality that we are a diverse community with specific needs. The demographics and diversity of our population continues to change. If we are all in agreement that we’re looking for a high quality of life and that education is a key to this high quality, then this growing diversity will be an important source of community strength and talent.
The bottom line for the community is that 29 percent of our students speak 55 different primary languages besides English and this number is growing. Of these, ELL students make up 17.5 percent of the district’s students, an increase from 9 percent in 2000. And, although the headlines might focus on Spanish-speaking ELL students, Asian Americans are the fastest growing population in our area. Ensuring that our schools’ ELL programs are strong is not an option, it is a necessity to ensure these children receive a sound education that contributes our long-term growth and financial stability.
Unfortunately, our ELL programs are not receiving anywhere near the level of state support necessary to meet its goals and support these students, and the achievement gaps between our second language students and other students show it.
On a local level, there are many programs and objectives for our English language learners that concerned citizens can help advocate for:
• More staff training with an emphasis on second language acquisition and teaching strategies for teachers with ELL students in their classrooms.
• Establish a robust Parent University modeled after the Miami-Dade national model to train parents to better understand how the school system works and how to access services and people. This is especially important for our non-English speaking parents.
• Many parents also need basic English classes so they can better communicate with teachers and principals directly and understand written materials.
• Better access to college and post-secondary technical education opportunities through such channels as the Millennium Scholar-ship.
• More two-way language immersion programs that allow learning to occur in both the student’s native language and English simultaneously.
• Targeted scholarship programs that would recruit the best high school students who are bilingual to attend TMCC and UNR and eventually become teachers in the district.
• Bilingual parent involvement facilitators are needed in certain schools with large numbers of ELL students to facilitate day to day communication with families.
• Workshops for parents on how to navigate the school system, access technology that allows them to see how their children are doing in school, and take advantage of programs like Smarthinking.com, an online homework help system that children and parents can log onto from home.
There are clearly many options available for improving the quality of education and outcomes for English language learners in our schools. Everyone of us is responsible for following through, implementing these options and ensuring that each student is successful. We may differ regarding how we think our community ought to grow and develop, who should live here, but the bottom line is we have to deal with what is. As long as we are a part of this community we have to take responsibility for our quality of life. How we work with and support the school system to ensure the success of our children will be reflected in the community’s overall quality of life. Every community must have strong support for quality education systems in order to thrive. When we invest in education by giving time, money and a positive attitude, we are setting the foundation for comprehensive community growth, versus creating career, economic and social liabilities that will hamper our future success.
Len Stevens is the executive director of the Sparks Chamber of Commerce.