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Immigrant populations on the rise in local schools

English learners make up 51 percent of Rock Creek
By: Jenifer Gee, Journal Staff Writer
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Angela Barajas, an outgoing and bubbly teacher's aide at Placer High School, doesn't want to remain silent any more. She wants her opinion and, more importantly, her vote to count. I want to make a difference, Barajas said. So the Mexico-born Auburn student just started to tackle one her biggest life goals: becoming an American citizen. And she's going it through a citizenship class at Placer Adult School. Barajas is among the millions each year who apply for U.S. citizenship. And millions more are coming into the country. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the number of legal permanent residents in the country has increased from 11.5 million in 2004 to 12.1 million in 2006. California hosts the bulk of that number with 3.4 million residents. In addition, the department estimates the unauthorized immigrant population in the country has risen from 8.5 million in 2000 to 11.6 million in 2006. The growth of minority populations in the country is also a trend in Auburn. One area where it is most evident is in the increase of English learners in local schools. Over the past 10 years, local elementary schools have witnessed a significant influx in their English learner populations, according to Michele Schuetz, Auburn Union Elementary School District superintendent. Rock Creek School in Auburn leads the pack with 134 English-as-a-second-language students, which accounts for about 51 percent of the school's population, said Claudia Wilson, an English learner coordinator and teacher for the Auburn District. There are 57 English learners at E.V. Cain Middle School, 39 at Skyridge and 17 at Alta Vista and Auburn Elementary, according to a March 2007 report from the district. There are both positive and negative issues that surround this minority population. Even though their numbers are growing, some can still feel intimidated by their surroundings. Wilson said it has taken Rock Creek about 10 years to make it a place where non-English speaking families feel comfortable. The addition of a bilingual secretary and principal helped break the ice, she said. Ten years ago you didn't see our parents on campus. They were afraid and they didn't feel they could communicate here, Wilson said. Now they do. Questioning whether or not students have legal or illegal status in the United States is not part of the job description, school officials say. You can't exclude anyone for coming into the public school system for any reason, said Christy Dyer, English language coordinator for Placer Union High School District. Because (English learners) are going to be in our community and going to be a part of the fabric of our society, they need to speak the language we all speak so they can become participating citizens. It is illegal for school districts to request residency status from families. To enroll in a school district, a family has to provide proof of residency in that district, immunization records and a birth certificate for each child. Barajas started taking citizenship classes through the adult school about a week-and-a-half ago. It's a class that requires proof of legal residency for students to be successful when they are applying for citizenship, said Christina Agee, Placer Adult School teacher. The impact of the English learner population is evident in a variety of ways. It's in the bilingual newsletters sent home to parents, the need for more and more teachers to receive English learner training, and the search for more funding for programs to help the population. The cost to fund English learner programs fluctuates from year to year and depends on population size, according to Gregg Ramseth, director of technology and assessment and coordinator for English language learners for the Placer Union High School District. Ramseth said the district spends a little more than $6,600 a year on every student, including the general student population, and then applies for special state and federal grants to supplement a student's learning needs. In the 2006-07 school year, the Auburn school district received about $37,000 in funds from the state specifically allocated to English learners, according to Robbie Montalbano, assistant superintendent of business and facilities for the Auburn school district. She added that the district also receives money for a multitude of other program through basic low-income grants and economic impact aid. She said the district spent a very small portion “ about $25,000 “ of those funds on English learners in the 2006-07 school year. Other numbers equally, if not more important to district staff, school teachers and state officials are the scores English learners produce on a variety of standardized tests they are required to take. Rock Creek Elementary had the lowest Academic Performance Index for 2006, but did make the most improvement out of district schools from its 2005 results. The Academic Performance Index measures a school's growth and academic performance. The numeric index ranges from 200 to 1,000. The statewide target API for all schools is 800, according to the California Department of Education. Rock Creek's 49-point increase from 678 in 2005 to 727 in 2006 is an achievement of which school staff is proud. The three other elementary schools in the district had index results ranging from 822 to 852. E.V. Cain Middle School had a 2006 API of 773, which was a two-point improvement from its 2005 performance. Taking that test and others poses an extra challenge to English learner students because they are expected to succeed on a test in a language they are still trying to learn, Schuetz said. Truthfully, it is hard for kids who haven't mastered the language to be tested in a language they haven't mastered, Schuetz said. It is a difficult skill not only in Auburn Union but statewide. We're just very pleased they're making growth. And those students aren't the only ones achieving or surpassing their goals. After only a few months of working in the county, Barajas has noticed how well Spanish-speaking families and their children are responding to her assistance. Students' grades have improved, and she's successfully encouraged hesitant students to get involved with after-school activities and sports. I'm a person they can rely on, Barajas said. I know I have made a difference already.