English language learners on the rise at Avondale Schools

By: Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published December 22, 2017

 Avondale English as a second language teacher Kari Larned works with a third-grade English language learner on identifying paragraphs at Woodland Elementary School.

Avondale English as a second language teacher Kari Larned works with a third-grade English language learner on identifying paragraphs at Woodland Elementary School.

Photo by Deb Jacques

ROCHESTER HILLS/AUBURN HILLS/BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP/TROY — Over the past few years, the Avondale School District has seen a dramatic increase in the number of English language learners in the district.

“Between three and four years ago, we had about 150 students in the district that would have qualified for ELL servicing,” Avondale Superintendent Jim Schwarz said. “We now have about 450, and within the next 18 months to two years, that number is projected to climb to almost 650, so it is growing at a very rapid rate.”

District officials say families are particularly drawn to the communities that the district serves — Auburn Hills, Rochester Hills, Troy and Bloomfield Township — because they have good schools and abundant housing, and because they are located near the center of Oakland County for easy access to jobs and transportation.

“The changes in our ELL department are probably a result of the strong auto industry,” said Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Marty Alwardt, who oversees ELL teaching staff and curriculum for Avondale Schools. “We are seeing more and more students come to us from other countries whose parents are working in the automotive industry. There is a lot of housing available within our district, so we are seeing more students who are considered English learners in our programs than we have had previously.”

But Avondale Schools isn’t the only district experiencing an increase in students who speak little to no English. The trend is also happening across Oakland County, albeit on a smaller scale.

“Oakland County is also experiencing a significant increase,” Alwardt explained, citing information he received from Oakland Schools. “In Oakland County, since 2012-13, the English learners have grown by 3 percent, or 3,874 students. The non-English learners have declined by 2 percent, or 10,517 students, so this is an Oakland County, as well as the state of Michigan, occurrence too.”

Suzanne Toohey, English as a second language consultant for Oakland Schools, confirmed that the English language learner demographic in Oakland County has steadily grown over the years — from 10,709 students in 2009 to approximately 16,500 in 2017.

Avondale Schools has seen a record amount of diversity in the 2017-18 school year, with students speaking 46 different languages.

“Spanish is still our biggest population, but we are seeing a lot more students that speak Arabic, as well as different Indian dialects,” Alwardt said.

With a record number of students speaking little to no English, the district has had to make a number of adjustments to meet the needs of its students.

At the beginning of each school year, kindergarten through 12th-grade students who have been identified as English language learners are given the Wida English language proficiency assessment, which assigns each student a level of English language proficiency between one and five.

“Where they score on that one-to-five continuum determines the amount of servicing that a child needs,” Alwardt explained. “That instruction typically takes place within some pull-out instruction, where the child is pulled out of the classroom and is worked with, either one-on-one or in a small group setting, for a period of time during the week. That period of time is determined by the proficiency level of that individual student. There is also time where that ELL teacher will support that individual in the classroom.”

ELL students are then periodically assessed throughout the year to measure growth.

“Our first and foremost need is to help children acquire the English language,” Alwardt said. “If they can’t understand English, they can’t learn — even though we do things in their native languages — so English acquisition is our first and foremost primary responsibility. Then we want to help support their needs with the core curriculum — reading, writing, math, those types of things.”

Avondale Schools will likely spend approximately $390,000 — including salaries, benefits, professional development, summer school and supplies — to teach English language learners this year.

To meet the needs of the changing demographics, Avondale Schools has more than doubled its staff of ELL instructors.

“Just in a year and a half, we have grown from one ELL teacher to three teachers, and we have gone from four paraprofessionals to seven paraprofessionals,” Alwardt said.

The district also established a new staff position to help families of children who struggle academically because of language obstacles. Kathy Jurado was hired to fill the ELL newcomer family liaison position at the beginning of the school year. Since then, she has been working to increase parent engagement by holding monthly meetings to provide information and parent-to-parent networking opportunities, hosting informal gatherings built around personal interests and hobbies as a way to connect parents, and working with district personnel to enhance current communication efforts.

“One of the most beautiful things about this community as a whole, and especially our students and parents, is that it is so accepting of students and their families from other cultures and other nationalities. That is what makes Avondale such a special place,” Alwardt said.

For more information about Avondale Schools, visit www.avondale.k12.mi.us or call (248) 537-6000.