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Area school chiefs fear language issue with immigrant influx

By Bridget Ortigo
July 30, 2014 at 10 p.m.

East Texas superintendents say a lack of language programs in their districts is a concern as state officials discuss a possible influx of immigrant children into Texas schools.

A Texas House committee met Tuesday to discuss the impact of thousands of children entering the state's public education system.

"I think it comes down to, if the children show up on our doorstep, we will take them in and offer them an education," Spring Hill ISD Superintendent Rick Flanagan said Wednesday. "We did it after (Hurricane) Katrina, and we will do it again. That's our job."

The committee, which was made up of 11 representatives, heard Tuesday from Texas Education Agency General Counsel David Anderson.

"School districts can accommodate these numbers, but they need notice ahead of time to prepare," Anderson told the committee. "State budget will guarantee districts an increase of funding."

Anderson said because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, districts are required to accept such children, regardless of their citizenship status, if they live in the school district.

"Immigrant status is not relative to students' right to enroll in school," Anderson said. "(Districts) will be required to serve the students in their district."

Anderson told the committee that the state agency could financially accommodate about 25,000 to 27,000 children being added the public school system.

"We have some room to make it work and compensate the districts now," Anderson said.

For school districts, that means funding would come before instead of after the school year for any immigrant children who enroll.

Anderson told the committee the immigrant students could potentially cost the state more per student than other children.

"Right now, the state pays about $7,900 per student to districts. These (immigrant children) would come with certain needs, like free or reduced lunch qualification as well as bilingual or special needs, so we estimate about $9,500 per student to be paid to the districts for those students."

Anderson told the committee smaller school districts would be affected the most because of the potential need for more staff.

"You're looking at more educators that are typically your hardest to hire," Anderson said. "Bilingual teachers, counselors and, even more rare, bilingual special education teachers."

Area superintendents have expressed concern over language barriers. Only a few area districts, such as Pine Tree ISD, have bilingual programs, while almost all have English as a second language programs.

"How many students would be entering the district and what level of support would they need to overcome language and cultural barriers detrimental to the education process?" said White Oak ISD Superintendent Michael Gilbert. "The number of students coming into any district with severe learning challenges (such as language) always create challenging scenarios."

As far as state assessments and districts' accountability ratings, Anderson told the committee that after Hurricane Katrina, the agency gave districts a one-year break on ratings.

"The state accountability system has procedures in place for any student who is an English language learner. These testing guidelines also take into account the length of time an English language learner has been in a U.S. school and what testing is required," said Pine Tree ISD Superintendent T.J. Farler.

Hallsville ISD Superintendent Jim Dunlap brought up the issue of student records.

"We realize the immigrant children will not have the same enrollment documents required by students enrolling for school in Hallsville ISD," Dunlap said. "The Texas Education Agency will need to provide information and guidance for school districts to follow concerning this requirement."

Carthage ISD Superintendent Glenn Hambrick said his biggest concern is the unknown, but he doesn't expect any big changes next year.

Longview ISD officials said they have not been notified of possible immigrant students coming into the district.

Flanagan said school is weeks away from starting, and there are questions still needing to be answered.

"There are a lot of issues, and we're just not at that point yet (of absorbing immigrants into the school system)," said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said. "We don't know what will happen to those children yet, and we don't want to speculate."



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