Alonso Mata, a spiky-haired fourth-grader, vividly remembers his anxiety on the first day of kindergarten: Would his teacher be nice? Would he make any friends?
Mostly, however, he stressed about being called on in class.
"I thought I might get in trouble because I didn't know how to respond," recalls Alonso, who at the time did not speak any English.
He soon found out he wasn't alone.
It's a common challenge at his school, Jeffers Elementary, where 72 percent of its 770 students come from homes in which English isn't the primary language. In fact it's a challenge throughout the Clark County School District, which administrators say is second only to Los Angeles Unified in the number of English language learners.
The difficulties -- such as how to get so many children up to grade level in subjects taught in a language they don't fully understand -- are great. The funding, administrators who run the district's English Language Learner program say, is not.
And now administrators have been told to plan cuts of nearly $5 million from the program's current $26 million budget to help bridge the district's anticipated $407 million shortfall.
District, school and program leaders are worried about what the fewer resources will mean for their students' futures.
"They could be lost, just fall through the cracks and fail," said Cristina Oronoz, an ELL specialist at Rancho High School.
Jeffers principal Wendy Roselinsky, whose student body is 90 percent Hispanic, said the cuts will become part of a larger problem.
"If we don't figure out a way to educate this population, we're in big trouble," she said. "This is the population that's growing fastest. We've got to figure out how to do this right."
ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK
The Clark County School District employs 160 ELL specialists such as Oronoz. They oversee a school's ELL teachers, test for English proficiency, coach and mentor other teachers who deal with those students, and collect data on a school's ELL population.
Perhaps more importantly, the specialists serve as liaisons between the school and parents. They educate parents about school requirements and help teachers and parents communicate. They are often the first people ELL students have contact with.
"They're very versatile," said Miriam Benitez, a district ELL coordinator. "They get into the classrooms and help the teachers, the kids, the parents and the administrators in lots of different ways."
At Rancho, Oronoz meets with parents -- many of whom don't speak English -- before, during and after school to help them understand what their children must do to pass high school equivalency exams and graduate.
"They have no knowledge of the educational system here," Oronoz said. "Moms feel intimidated before they know I speak Spanish. They're afraid of not knowing where to go or who to ask. If they aren't aware of the requirements, they have no idea how their child is doing. The students need that support."
Some 550 of Rancho's 2,900 students are active in the ELL program.
Luis Umaña, 16, said Oronoz helped both him and his mother when they showed up there in June.
Umaña, an El Salvador native whose mother works on a food truck, said both were scared because they didn't know much English.
"I've been practicing a lot," he said.
Because of the anticipated budget cuts, the ELL program will have to eliminate funding for all of its specialists, said Norberta Anderson, the district's ELL program director.
"It's hitting all of us just really, really hard," she said.
The cuts don't necessarily mean the specialists will be laid off. They could be absorbed into a school's larger teaching staff, where they probably will have little time for other duties. And some empowerment schools, which have more control over their budgets, could pay their ELL specialists from other funds.
That's what Rancho is doing. Oronoz's position is too important to lose, Principal James Kuzma said. But paying her means cutting somewhere else, he said:
"We may have to cut an administrator, cut supplies or increase class sizes."
Schools not fortunate enough to pay for specialists themselves face a big loss, those who work with ELL students say.
"They are the front line," said Patricia Arroyo, an English and ELL teacher at Del Sol High School. "Without them, the (ELL) kids will come in just like any other kid, like deer in the headlights, without any help. They'll be frustrated. Frustrated kids don't come to school. They drop out. We are shooting ourselves in the foot."
The district's dropout rate has decreased in recent years, from 7.8 percent in 2000 to about 4.8 percent now. (The specific rate among ELL students was unavailable last week.)
But School Board President Carolyn Edwards says students who are unable to master English quickly are more likely to drop out: "The ability of students to read English well by the third grade is a strong indicator of their likelihood to graduate and be successful."
ELL teachers and others worry the dropout rate could rise again if students who need extra help can't get it.
"The problem is that a lot of the ELL students are at-risk students," said Joan Herrera, another Del Sol teacher.
Experts say having a high school diploma is a critical step for avoiding poverty, and that dropouts are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.
And losing ELL specialists means students who need extra support will not be identified, Oronoz said.
"I don't know what's going to happen at those schools," she said.
Jeffers has two specialists and will lose funding for one. The other is paid for with federal funds meant to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students. With other duties, Jeffers' specialists teach parents how the school works, how to be more engaged in their children's education and how to plan for their children to go to college, principal Roselinsky said.
"We will have to regroup and look at it another way," she said. "At this point, I'm not sure how."
Teachers will be forced to do more with less, Edwards said: "It just increases the burden on our teachers and our staff."
For her part, Anderson is trying to look at the bright side.
"I'm taking this opportunity to revamp the whole (ELL) program. We're looking at revitalizing the program and making it a little more innovative."
Anderson said the specialists have done a good job building rapport and "communities within their schools." She hopes that will remain once their positions are gone but acknowledges that schools' scheduling will have to be creative since more regular teachers will be responsible for English proficiency testing.
A GLOBAL DISTRICT
The district has identified about 92,000 of its nearly 310,000 students as English Language Learners. Of those, 55,502 are "active" ELL students, meaning they are not yet fully proficient in English. Active ELL students have more than doubled in the past decade, and all but two of the district's 357 schools have ELL students: Goodsprings Elementary in rural Goodsprings and Lundy Elementary in Mount Charleston.
Spanish is the primary language for the majority, about 85 percent of such students. But about 150 different languages are represented in the district's program.
The second-most prevalent language is Tagalog, spoken in the Philippines, at about 4 percent.
Among the rarest languages in the district, with one student speaking each, are Bicol, spoken in the Philippines; Blin, spoken in Eritrea, an African country; and Harari, spoken in Ethiopia.
"We are a global district," Anderson said. "It really does make the world a small place."
Legislators often hear complaints from the public who say illegal immigrants are taking advantage of public schools.
The district doesn't track its students for purposes of determining their citizenship, but Anderson says about 88 percent of its ELL students were born in the United States. That statistic is based on birth certificates supplied by parents when their children are enrolling in school.
It can't be assumed the remaining 12 percent are in the country illegally because foreign-born students could be covered by their parents' work visas, amnesty exceptions, status as refugees or other legal provisions.
A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling dictates that all children in the United States have the same right as citizens to a public education under the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.
"We educate every student that comes to our door," Anderson said.
The district handles ELL students differently depending on their age and language skill level. At schools such as Jeffers, all instruction is done in English starting in kindergarten, and there is a strong English language development component in every lesson. Because a majority of Jeffers students are ELL, they aren't isolated into their own classrooms.
"We have no other demographic of any significant level," Roselinsky said. "It's everybody."
Younger children tend to learn English more quickly and have more time to become proficient. By the third or fourth grade, many have language skills equal to their peers.
Fourth-grader Alonso and Jeffers classmate Manuel Solis Montiel now speak articulately about themselves and their school in English, despite having known little of the language at first.
"I felt confident I'd learn, but kind of shy because the words wouldn't come out" at first, Manuel, 10, said.
Both boys' families immigrated to the United States from Mexico.
Rancho High School offers ELL students new to the country some "sheltered" instruction, teaching them regular subjects while simultaneously providing "more intensive language support as opposed to what they would be offered in a general ed setting," Anderson said.
Such students gather each morning in ELL teacher Aide Romero's classroom, where they focus on basic English skills -- vocabulary, pronunciation, verb conjugation -- in a welcoming environment.
"It's like a home, a safe place they can go," Oronoz said.
Adilene Becerra, a shy 16-year-old, said she felt lost when she first arrived at the school in August after immigrating to Las Vegas from Mexico with her mother.
"At first I was just watching the other kids and not understanding," she said in Spanish. "It was really hard. Now it's not as much."
Edwards said older students are especially challenging for the district because teachers have less time to help them become proficient in English.
Even those students who "meet the minimal measure of proficiency" haven't always acquired the academic language they need to succeed in school, she said. That hurts students when it comes to testing and can make it more difficult for schools to show "adequate yearly progress" under No Child Left Behind, the federal school accountability law.
The district runs several dual-language schools, in which native English speakers and ELL students are grouped together in classrooms and taught in both English and Spanish. The idea is that they will learn both languages.
FUNDING A DREAM
Nevada is one of eight states that does not provide "set-aside" funding specifically for ELL programs, district program director Anderson said. Such programs here must rely on federal funds and general funds from their school districts. About $6 million of the local program's $26 million budget comes from federal funding.
"That's all we get," Anderson said. "We are not funded adequately."
A 2008 report from the Migration Policy Institute's National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy says Nevada isn't investing enough in ELL programs to meet the changing needs of a growing number of students.
The Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank studies the movement of people worldwide.
A lack of funding and resources for ELL instruction places Nevada's economic future in jeopardy, the report says: "Nevada faces real risks if it continues to ignore the importance of educating (English language learners) and the children of immigrants."
And what would increased ELL funding provide?
Anderson's eyes light up. She said she has spent a lot of time imagining just that.
She would model the district's program on St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, "one of the best programs I've ever seen."
That district provides two intake centers where ELL students and their parents can get information about registration, immunizations and special education screenings, a "one-stop shop," Anderson said.
It also offers a special two-year language academy for middle and high school students, providing intensive language acquisition course work while students also keep up with their general education requirements.
"They go back to their comprehensive high school once they reach proficiency in English and are able to graduate with their peers," Anderson said.
Anderson would hire enough specialists to staff every school serving ELL students.
"For us to be able to offer that resource to every single school would be phenomenal," she said.
But such a program is a pipe dream in Nevada, and, "That takes money."
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at email@example.com.