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ELL

ELL student Nay Than Htoo smiles as he responds to a reporter's question on the first day of school in 2013.

Students from Iraq, Mexico and Burma are driving an unprecedented increase in the number of English Language Learners at Lincoln Public Schools, prompting officials to budget $1.2 million to hire additional teachers for the coming year.

In the last year, LPS had 866 newly enrolled ELL students, said Linda Hix, director of federal programs. This summer so far, 60 more ELL students have registered to start school in the fall.

Last year's 35 percent increase in ELL students brought the number to a record 2,917. And many of those students, Hix said, speak very limited English, which means they need more intense services.

Last year, the influx -- 306 new ELL students came to LPS between March and May -- required shifting teachers between schools to handle the increase as class sizes grew.

Typically, the district likes to keep classes of Level 1 ELL students -- those who speak very little English -- at about 12 students, but at times some classes ballooned to 20 to 22 students.

“Our teachers did a great job of making it work,” Hix said.

LPS hired four teachers during the year to help with the additional students, and the $1.2 million requested in the proposed 2015-16 budget would pay to keep those teachers on staff, plus hire nine more teachers and five more bilingual liaisons to work with families.

The district has 18 liaisons, though they don't all work full time. The district had 79.8 full-time-equivalent ELL teaching positions last year.

The newly enrolled ELL students came from 44 countries and speak 63 languages, but by far the biggest influx last year came from Iraq, Mexico, Burma and refugee camps in Thailand, Hix said.

A total of 264 students came from Iraq and 246 from Mexico. More than 50 spoke Karen.

Lincoln’s refugee population -- and by extension ELL students attending LPS -- is driven by world events, and the violence in Iraq caused by the Islamic State has brought more people to Lincoln, Hix said.

A U.N. report earlier this month reported on the toll the conflict has taken in Iraq, where nearly 15,000 have been killed and 30,000 wounded by the Islamic State during a 16-month period ending April 30. Lincoln is home to more than 1,000 Yazidis, a religious minority targeted by the IS. Hix said she didn’t know how many of the new ELL students are Yazidi.

Other countries with more than 20 students new to LPS include Vietnam (50), Russia and the Ukraine (34), and Sudan (27).

Some of the new students might be among the flood of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border from countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to escape violence, but the numbers are fairly small. Among the new arrivals, Hix said, are 15 children from Guatemala and 11 from Honduras, but she doesn’t know whether they were unaccompanied minors.

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Of the new ELL students, the majority are young: 668 attended elementary school, Hix said, with 444 of them attending kindergarten.

Many of the newly enrolled students attended Campbell, Kooser and Belmont elementary schools, Goodrich and Park middle schools and North Star and Lincoln High, schools with bigger programs for those who know the least English, Hix said.

Before the big influx, LPS decided to modify where elementary-aged ELL students go to school.

About seven years ago, LPS bused ELL students to 14 schools. In 2010, officials decided to educate them in their neighborhood schools.

Now, Hix said, they’re going to modify that and create six smaller centers in areas of Lincoln where schools have very few ELL students. Under the plan, existing students won’t have to change schools.

A study group of teachers, curriculum administrators and principals are exploring the best way to serve ELL students, including ways to better communicate with families, line up ELL classes with district curriculum and have instructional coaches work with teachers.

Staff does a great job, she said, but offering support is important.

“We know (ELL students) are part of the future of Lincoln,” Hix said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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