Helping English learners

Storm Lake could get a big boost if an effort by the Iowa Senate to extend extra funding to school districts trying to teach immigrants English. A bill out of the Education Committee would extend the number of years districts receive extra funding from five years to seven years. That’s about how long it takes with hard work and remedial instruction to learn English well enough to excel in other subject areas.

The bill is based on a study committee report that urges extra attention for English Language Learners as their population has doubled to about 5% of Iowa student enrollment over the past decade. (We are proud to note that 10 years ago there were 142 students for whom Tai Dam was their language of choice, and their population was split about evenly between Des Moines and Storm Lake. Today, there are none. Teach them English and they will master it while retaining their native language.)

The task force was comprised of legislators and educators, including Kathy Brenney of Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency of Storm Lake and Monica Figueroa, a Storm Lake High School graduate and student at Buena Vista University. Also serving was the superintendent of the Denison School District.

Vinh Nguyen, an ELL coordinator with the Des Moines Public Schools and a task force member, tells us that Storm Lake and Denison have a far harder time coping with the financial verities of teaching immigrants English. Our districts are structured such that Storm Lake and Denison have the property-poorest districts among the top immigrant districts in Iowa (Des Moines, Sioux City, Perry, Marshalltown, etc.). To better serve ELL students Storm Lake and Denison must levy higher property tax rates to keep their programs strong.

The Senate bill seeks to help those districts by adding more weight and length to the formula. It will cost slightly over $20 million per year.

It will cost the state much more if we have half-educated immigrants matriculating from our public school systems with no way to climb the cultural and economic ladder.

Nguyen points out that Des Moines and Storm Lake have among the largest Burmese populations in the Midwest. They are not the same as the original Tai Dam refugees who settled under the wing of Lakeside Presbyterian Church a generation ago. Many of the Burmese have lived in refugee camps for more than 20 years, Nguyen points out. If they don’t master English, they cannot learn how to live to the fullest in Iowa.

“Then you have problems later,” he said.

The schools have become, essentially, the refugee welcome centers since the Iowa Cares program that settled refugees under community sponsorship is pretty much shut down.

Storm Lake does remarkably well with the resources it is allowed — note the Tai Dam success story above. We have the feeling that we are teaching these students with one hand tied behind our back. Many immigrants come here with no education at all. First we must teach English before they can learn arithmetic.

We have for years argued that the weighting formula was too light. We invited immigrants in to save the meat processing industry in Iowa. They have brought vitality and new hope to rural communities. But they also bring very real costs borne of a state policy that welcomes jobs, any jobs, skilled or unskilled. Storm Lake has benefited from immigration in countless ways. Think how much better life would be for everyone involved if every one of those children and their parents could really learn English to the point that they could earn a vocational or baccalaureate degree. That should be the goal of everyone.

The Senate bill deserves support in the House. It comes recommended by a non-partisan task force that studied the issue from every angle under the auspices of the Iowa Department of Education. Everything comes with a price. Learning English is no different.

Let’s meet them

The City of Storm Lake reports that local officials have been working with up to five developers for development of condominium units on the defunct Sunset Bay condo site that is being transferred from county to city ownership. The city is paying some $303,000 for the right to control who the developer is. Considering that cost, it would be good to know as soon as possible who those developers are.

If we had known more about Regency Commercial Services, perhaps we might not have picked them as the original developers. Regency went broke in 2008 and left the lakeshore property in rubble.

The city has yet to define a process under which it will select a developer. We hope it includes a public selection process under which each party is expected to argue why it has the best capability to render what the city wants. That’s how we select a city manager. It’s a good way to vet Requests for Proposals from architects, engineers and bonding agents. It should work for developers as well. Let the public meet them and get a feel, do some due diligence and react for the city’s benefit. That’s the way to come up with the best candidate. The city manager, for one, should agree.