Most Lincoln County school districts report a stable number of English learners this year, while the Wiscasset School Department’s number has doubled.
An English learner or English language learner is a student who speaks a primary language other than English and has yet to achieve proficiency in English.
The Maine Department of Education imposes five requirements on school districts to prepare for English learners: create a Lau plan, a description of how the district will provide services to English learners; identify English learners; develop and provide a program of services to meet the academic and linguistic needs of English learners; administer state assessments to measure student progress; and continue to evaluate the program in case it needs changes.
Lau plans are named for Lau v. Nichols, a landmark 1974 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that confirmed the rights of English learners to an equitable education in English.
“It doesn’t matter whether you have one student or 100 students, you have to provide services for that child’s need,” Ann Hassett, director of curriculum, assessment, and instruction for Damariscotta-based AOS 93, said in a phone interview.
A policy and resource guide from the Maine Department of Education states that students whose parents or guardians regularly use a different language at home are not necessarily English learners.
All English learners must be identified within 30 days from the beginning of the school year or two weeks of a midyear enrollment.
“You’ll talk with a student and you’ll think, ‘Oh, they are fluent English speakers; they don’t need anything; they are fine,’” Hassett said. “But academic language is so different from everyday language. A lot of times English language learners work under the radar because they appear to be understanding everything.”
Something like a colloquial expression can throw a student off, Hassett said. Students may not even know they have misunderstood something.
Hassett expects the state to eventually require coursework in English as a second language for teacher certification and recertification.
Every new student in a district receives a language use survey as part of their enrollment packet, which is a preliminary way to identify students who may not be proficient in English.
If the student answers any question on the survey with a language other than English or with an additional language, the student is screened for English language proficiency.
If the screening shows the student has a potential need for English language development instruction, the student is enrolled in programming.
Students in the program take a test every January or February to see whether they need to stay in the program. The test measures skills in speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
Elena Smith, an English as a second language teacher and specialist who works with three Lincoln County school districts, described the test as “very rigorous.”
“The bar is set as high as it can be because the idea is students need to be able to eventually qualify for college education and, in order to do that, their literacy skills have to be really well developed,” Smith said.
Smith works with AOS 93, Somerville-based RSU 12, and the Wiscasset School Department, so she serves more than half the towns in Lincoln County.
The number of students in Wiscasset has fluctuated from year to year, she said, but doubled this year.
The department currently has 11 students who receive English language development support services. Another four recently tested out, but will continue to be monitored.
“We do have a small but viable (English as a second language) population in our district and consider ourselves very fortunate to be able to provide services for the students we have,” Smith said.
“Our English language learners bring an array of talents and cultural practices and perspectives that enrich our schools and community, for which we are grateful as well,” she added.
Smith suspects that something about Wiscasset must be attractive to families moving to Maine.
“Historically, Wiscasset has been a place where people from different parts of the world have come for many different reasons when it was a port,” Smith said. “Of course you’d expect to hear many different languages spoken in Wiscasset, so it is interesting to see there is a little bit of a revival in that tradition where Wiscasset is a place that welcomes people who speaks in different tongues.”
Smith holds a master’s degree in romance/Germanic philology, a master’s in applied literacy, and a certificate of advanced study in English as a second language.
She provides direct English language development instruction and collaborates with general education teachers to meet students’ needs.
At the three districts she works with, Smith said, the languages English learners speak include Russian, Ukrainian, Thai, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin), and Urdu, a language of Pakistan and northern India. The most spoken language among the districts’ English learners is Tagalog, an official language of the Philippines.
She said about half of the English learners are in the elementary schools and the other half in the high schools. In addition to working with Wiscasset Middle High School students, she works with students at Lincoln Academy and Erskine Academy.
Smith said the most challenging part of her work is making time to meet with students because of the long distances between schools and the districts’ different schedules.
Smith has worked with Wiscasset schools since 2009 and RSU 12 since 2011. She started with AOS 93 this school year.
“We had no one, so that was challenging,” Hassett said of her district. “I was reaching out to consultants that were working in other parts of the state who were providing us with some support, but we had no dedicated person in AOS 93.”
The district had someone in the role a few years before, but they retired.
“It’s especially hard to find certified (English language learner) teachers in our area because they tend to be in Portland,” Hassett said.
RSU 40 Assistant Superintendent Christina Wotton agreed, although her district has a half-time teacher who works on individualized student plans to meet the needs of English language learners.
“We are very fortunate to have such a wonderful (English language learner) teacher, but I think the challenge for any district is finding someone with the skills to work with students who come to us knowing little to no English,” Wotton said.
According to Hassett, AOS 93 has fewer than 10 English learners and has not seen a recent influx.
Smith works 12 hours a week for AOS 93 on a contractual basis.
“We are very lucky to find such a wonderful expert who is looking at what we are doing and meeting the needs of our students,” Hassett said.
Since Smith is the expert, Hassett said, Smith determines what the students need. She works one-on-one with students, reviews their work, meets with teachers, contacts parents, and administers the annual tests that determine whether they still need services.
Other districts in the county, including AOS 98, RSU 12, and RSU 40, have also seen a stable number of English learners.
RSU 40 has seven English learners, less than 1% of its 1,847 students.
According to RSU 12 Superintendent Howard Tuttle, the population in his district fluctuates, but is fairly stable, at around five to 10 students.
AOS 98 Superintendent Keith Laser said the Boothbay Harbor-based district has six English learners. A teacher of French and German who works in the district spends a third of her time working with English learners.