Sharp growth in number of English language learner students has put ‘strain on the system,’ says Shawnee Mission administrator

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo credit: Shutterstock

In 2001, the Shawnee Mission School District counted 590 students who qualified as English language learners among its population. Fifteen years later, that number had grown by a factor of nearly six to 3,300.

That sharp demographics trend has stressed the district’s ability to provide appropriate language learning personnel, according to administrators.

“These are kids that bring their unique challenges,” said Darren Dennis, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, last week. “They’re great kids — we’re glad to have them. But they also put a strain on the system, because they’re not the kind of students we’ve been used to in the past.”

In a short presentation that capped off the SuperChat at Westridge Middle School Thursday, Dennis outlined the process for identifying students who may need English language learner services, testing them for proficiency each year, and tallying up the amount of staff time devoted to working on their language skills.

At present, 11 percent of Shawnee Mission students qualify as English language learners. With that growing figure, the district has an interest in streamlining the protocols around identifying ELL students and securing the funds to provide them with special instruction. Dennis said the ELL services reimbursement process under the previous Kansas school funding formula was onerous.

“In the old formula, the way that English language learners were funded, or that program was funded, was by minute count,” Dennis said, noting that district personnel with ELL teaching endorsements would keep track of the time they spent with every student, and then report it to the central administration. “What that means for Shawnee Mission is that it takes three days, three solid days, of people in a computer lab matching up schedules and trying to figure out how we count that up.”

In the presentation before Dennis’s, Rick Atha, the district’s assistant superintendent for instructional support, spent some time outlining the current school funding bills being worked in the legislature, noting that they bore close resemblance to the formula that was replaced by the block grant bill in 2015. Dennis said such an approach would be cumbersome for the administration of ELL services if it were reinstated.

“It’s a very complex formula and it’s a very time consuming formula,” he said of the previous approach.

Superintendent Jim Hinson’s ideas for a new approach to school funding, which have found few proponents among potentially crucial allies, included reducing the number of special funding categorizations to as few as two: English language learners, and at-risk students.