School district plans changes to English language learners program

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct the titles of Board of Education Vice-President Penny Vadla and Board of Education Clerk Bill Holt.

Among the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s budgetary reactions to shrinking state funds is a proposal to save $624,302 by cutting English Language Learner (ELL) tutors, who teach English to students learning it as a second language.

During a budget worksession at the district Board of Education’s Monday meeting, assistant superintendent John O’Brien elaborated on how and why school district administrators had planned the cuts. O’Brien said “changes to the program delivery of ELL” have been planned for two or three years.

“We’re not just proposing a mass cut to ELL tutors without making sure we have a safety net, and a plan we believe is as good — if not better and more efficient — than the way we’re currently providing services to these kids,” O’Brien said.

The school district funds schools in three villages around Kachemak Bay — Razdolna, Voznesenka, and Kachemak Selo — whose common language is Russian. Fifty-two percent of the Razdolna students are in the ELL program, as are about 40 percent of the students in Voznesenka and Kachemak Selo, O’Brien said. Those three schools have eight ELL tutors between them. All eight will remain, but their daily work will be cut from seven hours to six.

“Really, the ELL program there is extremely different from our other ELL programs throughout the district,” O’Brien said of the three Russian villages. “The Russian language is the predominant language spoken at home, and is the predominant language in the school, and the predominant language in the community at large. It’s a little bit different with our head-of-the-bay students who are consistently exposed to Russian rather than English, as opposed to a student at Sterling Elementary who is all day long immersed in English. … For those purposes we’ve decided to reduce the hours, but not eliminate the tutors at those schools.”

At schools outside the Russian villages, the proposed cut would eliminate ELL tutors and give their duties to the response-to-intervention tutors who presently work with students that need special attention. O’Brien said these tutors had received additional training for the purpose.

In the district’s 8,935-student population, the number of ELL students has dropped from 209 last year to 146 this year — 105 of which are Russian village students, according to Tim Vlasak, the school district’s Director of Assessment and Federal Programs.

“Part of it’s demographics,” O’Brien said when asked by a school board member the reason for the district-wide drop. “We haven’t seen a huge influx of people coming up from the Lower 48. It’s that flip-flop economy — when the Lower 48 is hurting, a lot of people come up here for jobs. Now we’re seeing the opposite — some of the same people who came up are now going back, looking for opportunities.”

Like Alaska’s economic health, the number of ELL students in the district has gone through fluctuations. At one point, Vlasak said, students spoke as many as 35 languages as native tongues. He said that, until a few years ago, the number of ELL students had been increasing, possibly due to what was then the state’s economic attractiveness.

“Historically, ELL populations … are typically our most mobile, transient,” Vlasak said. “They move, other than in Russian villages where they are long-term residents. The rest of the district’s ELL-identified students are more fluid in where they reside and how long they reside there. … Additionally, the way students are exited from the problem is either mobility — they leave the district — or through graduation, or they test out through the federal assessment.”

Vlasak said that this year there had also been a larger-than-usual number of ELL students testing out.

The administrators had first considered cutting ELL tutors from the Russian village schools, O’Brien said, but “thought that would be too drastic a reduction for this year.”

Vlasak said though each village school will plan the reductions on their own; in general the hours that Russian village ELL tutors lose won’t be classroom hours, but periods of behind-the-scenes work and planning. The role a Russian village ELL tutor plays in the classroom is different than that of ELL tutors in other schools, he said.

“In Kenai Central or Soldotna, you have a couple of students who’ve been identified as English language learners, and the staff will take a team approach to them learning the language of English. … In the Russian villages, it’s much more of a dual language approach, where the tutors and aids really are more translators,” Vlasak said. “The teacher can provide the information in English, and they can provide the information in Russian, and they can learn both languages simultaneously.”

Schools outside the Russian villages have between zero and 12 ELL students each, O’Brien said. Where there is little ELL demand, he added, the tutors spend their time working with students in other ways, such as helping with homework.

Giving ELL responsibilities to intervention tutors “is only one part of the process,” O’Brien said. The district will also plan to hire a single ELL specialist to teach its English-learning students using the Middlebury Interactive language-learning software, developed by Middlebury College in Vermont. Unlike the ELL tutors, who aren’t required to have any specialized training, the ELL specialist would be a certified teacher.

The ELL specialist position is not an entirely new addition to the district. Previously, Vlasak said, an ELL specialist had worked for the district for over eight years before resigning last year and not being replaced for budget reasons. The new specialist is not expected to affect the budget, however, because his or her pay will come from a different source.

Vlasak said that changes to federal education funding might now allow the district to pay an ELL specialist with federal dollars procured via Title One of the Every Student Succeeds Act — a source that makes money available based on a district’s poverty rate. O’Brien said the plan is to hire the specialist with federal grant money from this source, rather than money from the district’s general fund.

Board of Education Vice President Penny Vadla said she taught English as a second language to adult students coming to Alaska in the 1970s and was concerned about the measure, she said, “because I know what it takes.”

“I think we’ll be able to do with the response-to-intervention tutors, but I’m wary that we will not be providing enough support for those students,” Vadla said in an interview following the meeting. “So I’m going to be sure I take a look at the digital program (Middlebury Interactive) they’re talking about and see how that works. I think sometimes there needs to be a face, so you can talk about words and how words are used together, and basically formulate a relationship with somebody so they are immersed in it.”

Board of Education Clerk Bill Holt said he was “concerned about an added burden to classroom teachers.”

“Even though there will be professional development provided to them, I sort of see it as us just essentially adding on to the concerns of their workday,” Holt said.

Dusek said many ELL students are already in the intervention program, so “any additional students we may be asking teachers to be aware of is really small, when it comes right down to it.”

Reach Ben Boettger at

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