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Testing English-Language Learners in U.S. Schools: Report and Workshop Summary
of school districts (National Center for Education Statistics (NCES),1997:37-38).
Even within these high-concentration areas, many schools must adapt to rapid change. Committee member James Kadamus described the situation in New York State, which has identified 178,000 students in its system as English-language learners, 6 percent of its total student population. These students speak approximately 135 different languages and are heavily concentrated in the state's urban areas. New York's current policy is to use census and other data to calculate the five most populous language groups, and to offer bilingual programs in those languages. The tough part is that they must recalculate every year and quickly adapt their resources for the revised combination of languages.
The traditional destinations for immigrants—coastal cities, for example—are not the only jurisdictions that have been adjusting to rapid demographic shifts. Wausau, Wisconsin, a city that in 1980 was found by the U.S. Census to be “the most ethnically homogeneous city in the nation,” is an example of a place that has experienced an unexpected but very rapid shift. A trickle of refugees who arrived in the late 1970s has increased to a population of about 4,200 (in a city of some 37,500), and the city's elementary school population is now 20 percent Asian (virtually all from the Hmong population). This rapid growth has strained the school system financially and required it to work quickly to develop bilingual programs (Stephenson, 1998:3, 4, and 8, Beck, 1994). Communities in many regions of the country have experienced similar changes, and, while population projections are far from foolproof, current predictions are that the percentage of the population that is of Hispanic origin will grow, immigration rates will remain constant, and the populations of elementary and secondary school-age children will fluctuate but increase overall by 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996:1-9, 29). Such projections, and the experience of communities such as Wausau, suggest that a closer look at policies for educating language minority children may move higher on the agenda in many communities.
While it is clear that a great deal of flexibility is required of U.S. schools, it is important to remember that at present one of the most pressing challenges educators face in this context—in terms of numbers—is that of educating Spanish-background elementary students concentrated in high-poverty schools. Native Spanish speakers make up approximately three-fourths of the population that has been identified as limited-English proficient (National Center for Education Statistics, 1997:39). As was noted