At Mississippi Elementary School in Coon Rapids, 100 out of 415 students speak a language at home other than English.
There are two teachers -- Emily Suedbeck and Jeremy Rubel -- assigned to get those students over the hump of not only mastering a new language, but learning their subject matter as well. Among those students are at least 18 foreign languages. The ESL teachers circulate among the school's classrooms, helping keep those students from falling behind their classmates.
Even with the help of two teacher aides, Suedbeck and Rubel say it's not enough. One more teacher would do wonders. "Ideally, we'd like to get into every classroom every day," Suedbeck said.
Now, the teachers have to pick and choose. "Which is more important: second-grade reading or fourth-grade math?" she said.
A report issued today by the highly regarded Education Week magazine shows that Minnesota significantly lags behind the national average in the number of teachers it has to serve its English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students. According to the report, there are 49 such students for every ESL-certified teacher in Minnesota. Nationwide, the ratio stands at 19 to 1. Those figures are from 2006-07.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren acknowledges the shortage of ESL teachers in the state, which had 2,850 ESL teachers as of last year. "We are struggling," she said.
According to the report, Minnesota must boost its hiring of ESL teachers by 45 percent between the 2006-2007 and 2011-2012 school years to meet the growing need. Nationwide, the report says, the needed increase is 38 percent.
One reason for the shortage might be that Minnesota demands higher standards for teacher licensure than many states, Seagren said. The result: fewer, but more highly qualified, teachers.
Statewide, the number of ESL kids doubled, from 30,000 in 1995 to 61,000 in 2005, Seagren said.
Officials in Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest school district, know they need more teachers specifically to help a population of ESL kids that has soared in 15 years from 118 to the current 3,200. The district has 53 ESL teachers.
The report "reinforces the need in Minnesota to more adequately fund staffing of ESL teachers," said Lynn Montgomery, Anoka-Hennepin's assistant director for students services.
One problem with getting ESL kids up to speed in English, she said, is ESL funding covers kids only for their first five years in the United States.
"Research shows that it takes at least seven years to become proficient in the English language, and we're only funding for five," said Suedbeck, who broke off five ESL second-grade kids in a group Tuesday to help them with their reading. Rubel was next door, helping Russian-speaking student Mark Kochergin with his social studies in Susan Swallow's fifth-grade class.
Other findings of Education Week's annual "Quality Counts" report, conducted by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, were mixed. More Minnesota ESL students were making progress mastering English than the national average. In terms of state test scores, Minnesota ESL kids were less likely than their counterparts nationwide to post proficient reading and math scores. But on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, which are given to a sampling of students in different states, ESL students in Minnesota outperformed their counterparts nationwide in both subjects.
Some educators say the NAEP tests are the more accurate state-to-state comparisons because the same tests are administered nationwide. On the other hand, state tests vary. A state that has low testing goals might look good because more ESL students are meeting those goals, said Heidi Bernal, director of the St. Paul schools English-language learners department.
"In the United States, the only national assessment we have is NAEP," said Bernadeia Johnson, deputy superintendent of Minneapolis schools, where 23 percent of the students are ESL kids.
In Minnesota and nationwide, the study showed a huge achievement gap between school populations as a whole and ESL kids. In fact, the achievement gaps among Minnesota's ESL students are larger than the nationwide average. That, educators say, could be because of lower levels of education and higher levels of poverty among Minnesota's ESL kids.
For instance, in state fourth- and eighth-grade reading tests administered in 2006-07, 62 percent of Minnesota students scored high enough to be considered proficient. Of ESL students, only 31 percent were deemed proficient.
"What we want to focus on is closing that gap," Seagren said.
Norm Draper • 612-673-4547