One day in 1998, Michelle Fuerch, professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Ripon College, received an unexpected phone call in her office. Roosevelt Elementary School needed a Spanish interpreter, now. A young Mexican boy had pulled the fire alarm, not knowing what it was, and no one was able to explain to him what he had done, or the seriousness of it.
Fuerch laughs as she remembers that first flustered call. “Luckily I was available!” Nine years and countless parent-teacher conferences, committee meetings, federal mandates and immigrant arrivals later, Fuerch can speak to the evolution of Ripon’s schools in their response to immigration. “The schools have gotten a lot more effective at providing what these families need,” says Fuerch. “From the get-go – from the first call I got in my office – there has been tremendous support in the schools. Luckily, we have a superintendent with vision who takes this issue very seriously.”
Initially, the District was blindsided by the sudden arrival of significant numbers of children who did not speak English. In 1999, the sudden, unexpected registration of fourteen small Spanish speakers in Barlow Park Elementary School (BPES) – the day before classes started – jolted the system. Myra Misles-Krhin, Principal of the school, responded in several ways over the next few years, including hiring for each grade a classroom teacher who spoke some Spanish, and a native Spanish speaker aide for one of the kindergarten classrooms.
“It was apparent,” she says, “that hiring bilingual personnel would help our ELL students transition more effectively and would help our students be successful.”
The District, in collaboration with Moraine Park Technical College and Ripon College, also got involved in providing an ELL (English Language Learner) class for adults, with simultaneous children’s enrichment activities, though this program ended after less than two years. Guidance counselor Jocelyn Hoeper successfully applied for a grant for translation services, allowing the Parent Handbook, BRAVE registration information, Title I documents and a variety of individual letters to be translated professionally.
The BRAVE program was also conceived in part as a response to the special needs of Ripon’s ELL population. This program – which obtained substantial start-up funds to serve an at-risk and high-need population (including native English speakers as well as ELL students) -- has from its start six years ago also benefited hundreds of children who are not “at risk” but who take advantage of the varied educational opportunities available. Says Jolene Meyer, the District’s BRAVE Coordinator, “Immigrant participation in BRAVE has steadily grown. Students who aren't native English speakers find particular assistance through the homework help offered. The adults in their households may find it challenging to help their students with their school work.” This year also saw the registration of some Hispanic children in a BRAVE French class – which some see as evidence of a positive language learning experience and a heightened interest in and awareness of the importance of learning languages.
Like the BRAVE program, the District’s new four-year-old Kindergarten serves both native English speakers and ELL children. There were many reasons for its creation; one of them was that it would be a way to expose immigrant children to English earlier so that they would enter regular Kindergarten more ready to learn with their English-speaking peers.
Most recently, the School District in partnership with Ripon College produced a DVD in both Spanish and English to welcome and orient newcomers to Ripon and its school system, with basic information on everything from registering children for school to shopping at the thrift store to setting up a bank account.
Many critics of immigration worry that the costs of educating immigrant children will bust the bank. Certainly, immigrant children who do not speak English at home may require years of special instructional services before they are able to function at the same level as their native-born peers. There is no question that providing these services can be costly – and that these costs are borne primarily locally. While numerous studies show that immigrants (including illegal immigrants) are overwhelmingly a net gain for the economy at the national level, [see upcoming article on the economics of immigration, RCP January 10, 2008] they can still be, under some circumstances, a net economic loss locally. That is because a high percentage of the taxes they pay go to the federal government, and a high percentage of the services they consume (education is by far the biggest) are paid for locally with little federal support.
How do the numbers work out in Ripon?
There are currently 109 immigrant children enrolled in Ripon’s schools; just under 6% of the student body. (For the purposes of this article, this figure includes foreign-born children who came here within the last ten years, and children who were born here to immigrant parents and who are thus citizens.)
Public schools are required by federal law to enroll children regardless of their legal status. State and federal laws also mandate the provision of special language services in Districts with a sufficient population of ELL (English Language Learner) students – which Ripon has. Last year an ELL teacher was hired for the Middle School. This year Murray Park added an ELL teacher, and the District also has two ELL aides.
According to Superintendent Zimman, fulfilling this ELL mandate costs the District nearly $200,000, of which 97% comes from the District’s budget; less than $6,000 comes from the federal government. On the other hand, this is by no means the District’s most costly special program, nor its largest group of students with special needs. “State and federal laws require special education services that are considerably more expensive than ELL services” points out Zimman.
In total, the District spends on average about $9,600 in instruction and support per student per year, and receives about $6,600 of that in state aids. While determining state aid, property taxes and expenditures per student in the District is complex and almost invariably involves some apples-to-oranges comparisons, it is not at all obvious that the taxpayers or the School District would be better off financially without the ELL students. The extra $2000 per student for ELL services is much less than the $6600 state aid that follows them to Ripon.
Zimman asserts, in any case, that the District would have worked to meet the needs of its immigrant students with or without the federal mandate. "In addition to the economic benefits that our community gains from having educated ELL students and families, we have an ethical obligation to help children of immigrant families since many of our own ancestors were non-English-speaking immigrants who relied on tax-supported public schools to assist them in becoming productive members of our American society."
That said, the District is working to reduce the cost of providing necessary services by having more of them, like interpreting, provided “in house.” While the District currently pays an hourly fee for some interpreting services, as a longer term strategy for handling this need, the schools are trying to hire more regular staff who are bilingual. Randy Hatlen, principal of Murray Park Elementary School, says, “I feel strongly that we need to have someone on staff that speaks Spanish.”
Don Hones, father of three Ripon schoolchildren, professor of Education at UW-Oshkosh and regional leader in ELL/bilingual teacher licensure, suggests that to be really effective, the Ripon Area School District should make it a high priority when hiring teachers at all levels to seek out candidates who have ELL certification, and/or who are bilingual, and preferably at least some of whom have the same ethnicity as the students they will be serving. “Our schools need to represent our community, and our community is changing. It makes an enormous difference for a kid to see someone of their own background working in the school – and not just as an aide or assistant, but as a teacher or administrator” says Hones.
In fact, Ripon has tried to do this, but with limited success. According to Zimman, the ELL plan adopted by the School Board requires that each staff vacancy be posted with a stated preference for ESL certification. Unfortunately, he says, “We've been advertising that way for two years and haven't had any qualified candidate for any position with those credentials apply to our district.” As an additional strategy, the Board approved a measure that helps pay the tuition costs for any current staff member who enrolls in the UW-Oshkosh ESL teacher certification program. One teacher has completed that program and another is currently enrolled.
As for bilingual teachers and administrators, he says “we've had only one applicant.” The candidate withdrew her application when she learned that she would have to live in the school district and become part of the community as an administrator. “It's just really hard to find Spanish-speaking teachers and administrators,” concludes Zimman.
Hones counters that the District needs to meet people halfway if it is serious about diversifying its staff. “Other teachers and administrators don’t live in the District – why impose this requirement on a position with so few qualified candidates to begin with?” he asks. He suggests that the District’s best way forward may be to groom one of its own immigrant graduates to work in the system rather than chase after the limited number of currently qualified people from elsewhere.
There is no question that Ripon has been challenged to meet the needs of some of its newest students, and that meeting these needs has cost the District money. However, there is also fiscal good news: 70% of immigrants arrive during prime working age. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan points out, we thus haven’t spent a penny on their education, but we are reaping the benefits of their productivity.
In Ripon, there are a number of businesses that would be hard pressed to function without substantial immigrant labor. These companies make up a significant portion of Ripon’s industrial tax base. The cost of ELL services for immigrant children thus must be measured against the economic benefits generated by immigrant workers who are keeping the doors open for several local businesses. The Seneca plant, for example, employs about 90 seasonal workers – most of whom are immigrants who come without families and cost the School District nothing.
And what do Ripon’s classroom teachers themselves have to say? Dana Scott, who has been involved in serving local ELL adults and children for nearly a decade, says “I got into education solely to work with this population. Living in Ripon – small and homogeneous – I enjoy the diversity immigrants bring.” She also remembers her own experience abroad – just how bewildering and often frightening it was – and hopes to help ease the transition for Ripon’s immigrant children as an ELL instructor at MPES. Finally, she wants her children to be prepared for life in a changing world. “There’s a whole wide world out there! We’re moving towards a global society whether we like it or not. Having immigrants in our schools fosters an interest in other cultures, other languages, other countries. They enrich us all.”
Kathryn McMillan, a third grade teacher at MPES with ten ELL students, shares Scott’s enthusiasm. She doesn’t see her immigrant children as a problem, as a cost center, or as empty linguistic and cultural vessels waiting to be filled. She finds delight and fascination in who they are. “Their ethnic background so helps them build community! Their ways are different – having the ELL kids in my classroom is so rich! Without them, my American kids wouldn’t come to understand their own culture. We experience Hispanic culture in our classroom: they talk about their beliefs, their parents bring in Mexican treats, and they’re really different than ours! We study festivals of lights around the world, and the Mexican kids talk about theirs. They bring their culture, we bring ours, and in my classroom we try to tie it all together. We have a community here!”