"If someone sued, they'd have a pretty strong case right now."
Honolulu district's ESLL programs
As the general student population has declined, the number of non-English-speaking students has increased.
But the funding hasn’t.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Jeremy Goloyan, a student in Diane Murakami's English as a second language class, listens -- sort of -- to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Hawaii schools face sanctions or lawsuits if nonnative speakers fail to meet federal standards
The population of Hawaii public school students with limited or no English skills is growing rapidly, placing an additional burden on schools already struggling to lift academic achievement of such students to federally required levels.
The number of students in the state's English for Second-Language Learners program has leapt 42 percent in the past four years to more than 18,000 today, and the Department of Education projects sustained annual growth of more than 1,000 students for the next few years.
Despite the recent growth, the amount of funding available for the program has actually declined in recent years.
All of this heightens the pressure on schools, which could eventually face sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law if ESLL students don't perform as well academically as other students.
Program officials say it also leaves the state vulnerable to potential lawsuits for failing to supply adequate and appropriate educational opportunities to nonnative English speakers, as federal law requires.
"If someone sued, they'd have a pretty strong case right now," said Lani Kapolulu, who is overseeing the Honolulu district's ESLL programs, which she says are under "major strain."
The strain is due in part to a rapid increase in students from Micronesian island groups such as Chuuk, the Marshall Islands, Pohnpei and Kosrae, whose treaty with the U.S. guarantees visa-free entry and financial assistance to families.
Speakers of the Philippine dialect Ilocano remain the most numerous ESLL students, but the various Micronesian languages combined are now second, according to Department of Education figures.
The Micronesian students pose an added challenge in other ways.
While Ilocanos often have some exposure to English, and Asian immigrants typically have classroom experience, Micronesians often arrive with neither. Many are illiterate even in their native tongues, some of which are based more on oral than written traditions, school officials and teachers say.
"The big difference is that our students are coming in much needier," said Principal Catherine Payne of Farrington High School, which recently expanded its "pre-literacy" programs to cope.
Tight budgets have kept annual state ESLL funding frozen at about $10 million for several years, and full-time ESLL teacher positions have been held at 140.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Queen Kaahumanu Elementary teacher Diane Murakami has seen nonnative speakers reach a third of enrollment.
In the past, Hawaii schools received millions more in federal money designed to offset the social impact of Micronesian arrivals, but the Lingle administration has since put all of that money -- now at $10 million a year -- toward meeting the immigrants' significant health needs.
"We're just having to tell our districts to be resourceful," said Gerry Madrazo, coordinator of ESLL programs statewide.
At Queen Kaahumanu Elementary School in Makiki, ESLL teacher Diane Murakami was once able to rely on a part-time teacher to help her in the classroom and handle the piles of student performance data and other federally required ESLL paperwork, freeing Murakami to teach.
But the funding shortage eliminated the position, and Murakami now does the additional work herself.
She and a handful of other ESLL staff now handle 177 students, about a third of the school's enrollment.
It's a diverse group. In one classroom of 20 kids, the native tongues include Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Japanese, Chuukese, Marshallese, Spanish, Kosraean, Pohnpeian, Vietnamese, Tongan, Cantonese, Chamorro and even a little girl from Afghanistan.
To accommodate them, Murakami churns through all-too-brief sessions of about 45 minutes, 20 students at a time, reading stories and doing other inventive activities designed to fortify the language.
But she also runs a half-hour morning tutor program before school and will soon add an after-school session -- all on her own time and for no extra pay.
"We try to make the most of our time with them, because they need so much more than we can give," she said.
At many schools, pressure is growing to wean students quickly into mainstream classrooms to ease the burden on ESLL staff, and mainstream teachers are increasingly being asked to learn ESLL strategies to cope with those students.
"Everyone has been working a lot harder the past couple of years," said Principal Keith Hayashi of Waipahu Elementary School. More than half of the school's 1,000-plus students are in ESLL.
The extra effort resulted in sharp gains for the school's ESLL students on high-stakes standardized tests this year. However, the No Child Left Behind law requires that ESLL students perform as well as all other students, and Waipahu Elementary, along with many other schools, remains well below that point.
"We're reconciled that some are just not going to get high school diplomas," said Farrington's Payne. "The best we can do is teach them the most English we can while we have them."
At 18,378, ESLL students now make up 10 percent of the state population of 181,355, compared with 5 percent in the early 1990s. The department forecasts a population of more than 20,600 in two years, even as total public school enrollment declines.
Federal law puts the onus on school districts to ensure an equal education to all students regardless of their native tongue. If not, they could face legal action similar to the 1993 Felix case that forced Hawaii to dramatically increase special-education spending.
A number of mainland school districts have been sued on language grounds. Most notably, a court order forced Florida to focus far more resources on its Spanish-speaking students than before.
There have been some complaints in Hawaii, which are typically addressed at the school level, said Kapolulu. She adds that the state might be shielded by the fact that many of the new immigrant families don't know their rights and are often happy to receive the services they do get, she said.