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IN DEPTH: EDUCATION FOR ALL

When Leticia Ochoa started the fourth grade, she had just arrived from Mexico and didn't speak English.

With extra attention from her teacher, Ochoa said, she started speaking English within a month or so, and was fluent after a year. Now the 13-year-old teaches English to her mother, an illegal immigrant.

"I had a deal with my teacher," she said. "She spoke to me only in English and I helped her learn Spanish. For me, I think it was real good. Some students take a lot longer to learn" English.

Samantha Guerrero, who was 11 when she came to Las Vegas from Southern California, got lost in the shuffle of new students. School administrators, at first glance, presumed she knew little English even though she is bilingual, said her mother, Angie Guerrero.

The oversight was soon corrected and Samantha was moved to a more challenging class, where she assists students not fluent in English.

"Her teacher, who only speaks English, has Samantha sit with the Spanish-speaking students and translate for them," said Angie Guerrero, 35.

The two girls are just drops in the wave of Spanish-speaking students that has hit the Clark County School District over the past 10 years, as more immigrants come to Las Vegas for jobs in the service industry, construction or other pursuits.

The number of Clark County School District students has grown 49 percent since 1998, but enrollment in the English Language Learner (ELL) program for non-English-speaking students has skyrocketed 136 percent.

Over the same period, the budget for ELL has jumped 196 percent, but the per pupil expenditures have inched up only 6 percent because of the growth in enrollment, according to district budget and enrollment figures. For the 2006-07 school year, $18.4 million for the program came from state funds and $8.3 million came from federal funding.

The program's students are 94 percent Spanish speakers. Two percent speak languages from the Philippines, less than 2 percent speak Chinese and the remainder speak a variety of languages.

During the 2006-2007 school year, more than half of the Hispanic students -- 59,874 of 117,496 -- were in the ELL program, enrollment data from the district shows.

Meanwhile, for the first time last year, Hispanic students in the district outnumbered the Caucasian students, meaning the district is now considered a "majority-minority" district.

School administrators say 75 percent of students in the ELL program were born in the United States.

"In registering, they provide a birth certificate and that is how we know if they were born in the U.S. or not," said Nancy Alamo, director of the ELL program.

But the school district has no way of knowing how many are children of illegal immigrants. Parents are not required to prove citizenship or legal resident status.

NOBODY COUNTS

Tom Rodriguez, executive manager of the school district's Diversity and Affirmative Action Programs, said no school in the country tracks students who are illegal immigrants or who are the children of illegal immigrants, and said there is no "common sense" reason to do so.

"You might find some people on the far right who would want to do that, but I can't think of any educators that would want to do that. Why would an educator not want to provide educational services?" said Rodriguez, whose parents came to the United States as illegal immigrants nearly 90 years ago when they were small children.

"If someone is living in your community in large numbers," he continued, "wouldn't you want them educated so that they can better feed and clothe themselves, take care of their well-being and try to contribute to the community? ... Of course, you will get an argument on that from the fiscal end."

A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plyler v. Doe dictates that all children residing in the United States have the same right as citizens to a public education under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The case challenged a 1975 Texas law withholding from schools state funds for children who were not admitted legally into the United States. The state was challenged by children of Mexican immigrants attending schools in Smith County, Texas.

According to a synopsis of the court ruling by the Cornell University Law School, "The undocumented status of these children does not establish a sufficient rational basis for denying them benefits that the state affords other residents ... no national policy is perceived that might justify the State in denying these children an elementary education."

However, Gustavo Regalado, 55, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico with two children in Clark County public schools, sees things differently. It's unfair, he said, that his tax money goes to teaching English while other school programs are being cut from the budget.

"I'm American," he said. "I learned English and my two children knew English when they started school. It's not fair because now there's money coming out of my pocket to teach children who don't learn or who just immigrated and don't know English."

LEARNING THE LANGUAGE

The schools in Southern Nevada with the highest number of ELL program students are Bell Elementary, southwest of Interstate 15 and Sahara Avenue near Palace Station; Monaco Middle, near East Lake Mead and North Nellis boulevards; and Rancho High, near Bruce Street and East Owens Avenue, according to the school district.

The schools with the lowest Hispanic enrollment are outside the urban area and include Harry Reid Elementary in Searchlight, Garret Middle School in Boulder City and Indian Springs High School north of the Las Vegas Valley.

The ELL program provides training for teachers, learning materials, books and other resources, Alamo said.

There are 157 ELL specialists, who travel the district working with teachers. And, for the coming school year, there are 2,200 teachers equipped with training in English as a Second Language curriculum or who are considered by the state to be "bilingual endorsed" teachers, which means they have training in teaching non-English speaking students, Alamo said.

Specialists provide professional development for teachers, serve as mentors for teachers and provide student instruction in classrooms and smaller group settings, Alamo said.

ELL teachers and specialists do not receive any stipend, extra time off or any other benefits for their additional qualifications. They are paid the same as other teachers, who average $46,429 a year, including salary and benefits.

Some children will require much more time to learn the new language than others do, Alamo said. With previous classroom experience of some sort, students typically require two to three years to learn English. Without a prior education, it typically takes five to seven years, she said.

There are seven dual-language elementary schools in the district, said Kelly Sturdy, principal at Herron Elementary School, near the intersection of East Carey Avenue and North Pecos Road in North Las Vegas.

"Our major goal is to get kids 100 percent proficient in English so they are scoring the same as their English-speaking peers by the fifth grade," Sturdy said. "And our other goal is to get the English speakers proficient in Spanish to increase their opportunities for jobs. ... Being bilingual is a great gift for children to have."

At dual-language schools, students whose primary language is English and students who speak Spanish are taught in both languages. The program has added a grade every year as the first class of dual-language students moves up.

Although the program is relatively new, the preliminary results have been positive, and national data indicates students in dual-language schools exhibit higher cognitive skills and a higher-level vocabulary than students at traditional schools.

"For Spanish-speaking kids, they have no choice. They have to learn to speak English and get on track," Sturdy said. "I have no doubt all of them will be English proficient."

Libardo Gonzalez, 18, a Cuban immigrant who was granted asylum when he and his parents arrived in the United States eight months ago, said he would love to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas when he completes the "easy" night class he is taking to get his general education diploma.

However, with the high cost of tuition for even a Nevada resident, he plans to get his nursing degree before pursuing his dream of becoming a doctor, he said outside the English class that he attends mornings at the Stupak Community Center, west of the Stratosphere.

"It's important to speak English," he said. "We are in America and the official language is English, and (immigrants) have to learn English to do anything here."

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