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Parents say too many refugees at Century school

Immigrants and refugees are taxing the resources of Century Elementary School in Grand Forks and the School District ought to move some or all of them to north-end schools that suffer enrollment shortages, according to a petition circulating amon...


Immigrants and refugees are taxing the resources of Century Elementary School in Grand Forks and the School District ought to move some or all of them to north-end schools that suffer enrollment shortages, according to a petition circulating among school parents.

Century has more than 590 students, of which about 70 are in the English Language Learners program, a number that has nearly doubled in the past four years. Petitioners fear teachers will not be able to devote enough attention to both the ELL students and regular students.

"It's not an issue that we don't like ELL kids; I think it benefits my kids," said Susan Spivey, one of the parents. "The problem is -- is there enough room for all these kids."

Though she's been asked to speak on behalf of the petitioners, she said she has not signed the petition because she's not committed to the actions that it wants from the district. She just wants parents to be aware that there is a problem, she said.

Jody Thompson, assistant district superintendent, said the district already is doing something, which is adding more staff as the number of ELL students increases. It's considering adding even more, he said.


Some other parents question the motives of the petitioners.

Meggen Sande said many schools in the city's growing south end are seeing enrollment increases that can be taxing to staff, why focus on the ELL students alone, something she thinks suggests intolerance. If their numbers are an issue, she said, the solution is more staff. "I just don't want this to be taken out on ELL kids and their families. They're a vulnerable group, and they should feel welcome here."

Petitioners will be bringing the issue before the Parent-Teacher Organization at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7 in the library at Century. Thompson said he'll be there to hear them out.

Teachers taxed

As Grand Forks' population of immigrants and refugees from around the globe grows, the school district's ELL program has had to grow with it. In fall 2007, the district created three "magnet schools" that had ELL programs, the idea being they would attract students that need the programs.

The original three were Ben Franklin Elementary School, South Middle School and Red River High School. Ben Franklin proved too small and the program moved to Century.

Is Century now proving too small, as well?

Spivey and the petitioners seem to think so.


The argument goes like this: ELL students, by definition, speak little to no English, and they need a lot of attention. There is only one ELL teacher and 2.5 paraprofessionals and they can't be everywhere at once, which means regular teachers have to step in. With the pressure of federal No Child Left Behind legislation and disabled students being integrated in regular classrooms, regular teachers are under enough pressure as it is.

"My kids, I don't want them to be forgotten because a teacher can only do so much in a classroom," said Spivey, who has a son in first grade and a daughter in third grade. At the same time, she said, "We want ELL kids to get as many services as possible."

Don't get her wrong, she said, Century is a "fabulous" school and its teachers are "wonderful," she said. "I'm concerned that if you keep overtaxing those great teachers and that great principal, some of the teachers are going to leave."

She said she heard some already have left.

Asked about adding more ELL teachers, she said she doesn't think there's enough room at Century. She said she's heard a rumor that 90 more refugee families are headed for Grand Forks, which would really tax the school.

ELL myths

Now, to the other side of the argument.

"It's a misperception that all 70 students are in classrooms 100 percent of the time," said Thompson. "That's not true."


ELL students do not all need the same amount of attention. Some are so new to English that they must spend most of the day in ELL class, which is to say they are not taxing regular teachers. There are about 20 of those students.

The rest are proficient enough that they need spend only a part of the day in ELL class. And some eventually graduate from the program and can participate fully in regular classes.

It's also a misperception that there is no more room at Century, according to Thompson. There is enough for one or two more classes.

As for the 90 refugee families, he said, that's pure rumor. The school district stays in close contact with Lutheran Social Services' New Americans program, he said, and has heard nothing of the kind.

But aren't teachers feeling any pressure from the growing ELL student body?

Cindy Cochran, Century principal, said that's not the case. Teachers appreciate the diversity ELL students bring, she said. When the program moved to Century, teachers received quite a bit of training, which is continuing.

Century isn't the only school in the district where there is a "diversity of learners," she said. Its teachers aren't the only ones working with students that have special needs, she said.

The tone


The tone of the petition is fairly adamant about what petitioners think the district ought to do:

"The GOAL of the petition is to get the Grand Forks Public Schools School Board to either: A) move the ELL program from the Century magnet school to a school suffering declined enrollment OR B) move the Grand Forks ELL students outside Century boundary lines to a northern school, while keeping the ELL students within Century boundaries at a predetermined maximum number limit (approx. 40)."

Spivey said it was probably written at the peak of parental frustration. Talking with petitioners, she said, it seems they'd be happy if the school district did something, if not exactly what the petition calls for. She herself does not feel the ELL program should move north, she said.

She acknowledged that it does sound as if petitioners want to foist immigrant children onto some of the poorer areas in Grand Forks, but she feels that the petition is meant to help ELL students. In fact, she said, she has talked to some of their parents and they agree, signing the petition. "I certainly hope ELL families don't feel we're attacking them."

The petition, by the way, does specify that the signer must be a U.S. citizen, 18 or older, and must have lived in North Dakota more than 30 days.

Sande, who has two children in the first grade, said the petition is wrong. "ELL students aren't the problem," she said. "The enrollment is the problem." The redrawing of school boundaries to redistribute student populations is what's needed to take pressure off teachers, she said.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send email to ttran@gfherald.com .

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