Radi and Hadi Hamdan’s English is getting better, slowly. Sitting in the living room of their Florissant home on a recent evening, they struggled to get through more than introducing themselves before switching back to Arabic.
The 12-year-old twins moved to the northern St. Louis suburb from the West Bank last summer, finally reuniting with their father, who has lived in the United States for two decades.
The twins are seventh-graders in Hazelwood School District’s West Middle School. Radi likes art class. Hadi’s favorite subject is math. They also need intense English-language instruction in order to follow other courses.
When they first started school in August, that’s what they got: English-language class almost three hours a week with a small group of fellow recent immigrants. They were getting better “little by little,” Radi said, through a translator.
But class time dropped to just 50 minutes a week shortly before winter recess. Is that enough?
“I need 100 minutes,” Radi said.
A “challenge” meeting their needs
The Hamdan twins and hundreds of other immigrant and refugee families moving to the St. Louis suburbs have strained English language instruction programs in Hazelwood and other school districts.
As of January, the Hazelwood district has 607 students who need English instruction, nearly double from the 2008-09 school year.
Middle school students with the most limited English skills, like Radi and Hadi, should receive 10 hours of instruction each week, according to recommendations from the state education department. There aren’t enough English language teachers at West Middle to provide that many hours of instruction.
“It is a challenge for us. It’s a challenge to meet all those needs based upon those recommendations,” said Lynette Jackson, Hazelwood’s director of federal programs, which includes English-language learners.
Jackson told the school board earlier this month she would need 15 more certified English teachers in order to meet the recommended instructional time. That would cost the cash-tight district more than $900,000, a figure some board members balked at.
“It’s needed; no question, it’s needed,” board member Mark Behlmann told Jackson at the meeting, but added, “We don’t have the money.”
Hazelwood did not make any of its nine current English-language teachers available for an interview, but several told St. Louis Public Radio they regularly work through lunch breaks and planning periods to meet with their students. They serve between 60 and 70 students each, three times the district average student-to-teacher ratio.
“It means more students to serve, more students to screen, more students to assess, more students to keep documentation on,” Jackson said. “But they have become pretty resourceful in how they are doing that in order to best meet the needs of the students.”
Hazelwood is not the only school district seeing large increases in non-English speakers. The number of English-language learners in the state grew 12 percent this school year, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That’s more than twice as fast as previous years.
Since 2009, the immigrant population needing language instruction has doubled or tripled in the Lindbergh, Ft. Zumwalt and Fox school districts, among others. Education administrators said predicting growth trends is difficult.
“People had more of a stereotype that immigrants and refugees live in the city and so this was more of an urban issue and in the suburbs it wasn’t an issue, but that’s not the case now,” said DJ Kaiser, an associate dean in Webster University’s School of Education.
Having the qualifications to teach English-language learners requires an additional year of schooling — typically a master’s degree — on top of a four-year teaching diploma and certification.
Parkway School District just posted six openings for English-language teachers, which would give it a total of 33. For a single English-language instructor position in 2016, 18 people applied. In contrast, nearly 400 people applied for an open elementary classroom teacher position.
“When it comes to those that are prepared to work with English-language learners, there’s definitely a shortage,” Kaiser said.
He and other education officials stress the need for a “whole-school” approach to meeting the increasing need of non-English speaking students. In other words, having more teachers with some training in working with immigrant students to help take the burden off the full-time English-language instructors.
First-year teachers, however, score being able to work with non-English speakers as something they’re among the least prepared for on an annual state survey.
“A huge jump”
When Sasha Walchli began teaching English to immigrants at Parkway’s Green Trails Elementary 10 years ago, she had no more than 25 students.
“Last year, I ended with 47,” she said. “So there has been a huge jump just in the number of kids we’re servicing.”
Parkway clusters many of its youngest immigrant students at Green Trails, a strategy other districts do as well to conserve staffing resources.
On a recent morning, Walchi rounded up six of her third graders for English class. Sitting around her at a single table, she quizzed them on naming all seven continents. When the class is over, Walchi escorts her students back to their regular classrooms. She’ll check in on them, and her three dozen other students, throughout the afternoon.
But Walchi’s unofficial duties as an English teacher often stretch long after the end of the school day.
“The families really need the support, too,” Walchi said.
She often gets calls or texts with questions about school paperwork or even non-related school matters from her students’ siblings or parents.
“You have an even greater responsibility to help them outside of their school day and not just what’s happening in the building,” she said. “And I do feel that’s where a lot of your energy goes.”
Beyond 50 minutes a week
The Hamdan twins use a computer program to translate many of their assignments, and a bilingual friend helps Radi in science class.
At home, their father, Basem Hamdan, is able to translate worksheets. He’s asked his sons’ teachers to help them learn English faster.
“Sometimes I can’t sleep because I want them to talk, to understand (English),” he said.
The lone English-language teacher at West Middle School stays late several days a week to help her students with homework.
Hadi said he’ll be happier in school if he can spend more time learning English — and be better students, his brother, Radi chimed in.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Lara Hamdan contributed and provided translation.
Correction: The Webster University associate dean of education's name is DJ Kaiser. An earlier version misspelled his first name.
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