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Worry about fate of Hall's Newcomer Center simmers

But LRSD's Suggs says fears unfounded.

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Educators at Hall High School and members of the Little Rock Chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens are worried that Little Rock School District Superintendent Dr. Dexter Suggs wants to end or drastically change the current Newcomer Center at Hall High School.

The center, which brings in students from all over the district for whom English is not their native language, currently serves more than 200 students, most of them Latinos. Supporters say the program, which is unique in the district, works to better academic outcomes for students.

Suggs, meanwhile, says his intentions have been misconstrued, and he actually wants to expand ESL services — and options for ESL students and their parents — throughout the district, including at Hall.

The Newcomer Center at Hall was established after a 1998 visit from federal investigators following a civil rights complaint on behalf of ESL students in the LRSD. Under the Newcomer Center system at Hall, ESL students from 9th through 12th grade are taught their four core subjects in small "sheltered" classes with only 16 students per classroom. Although the classes are taught in English, as required by state law, teachers of these classes must have an endorsement on their teaching license saying they are specially trained to deal with students who are learning English as a second language. As students become more proficient in English, they are moved into regular or pre-AP classes taught by teachers who have at least 30 hours of training on educating ESL learners. In addition, English classes at Hall are "double blocked" for ESL students, meaning that students spend one hour each day on writing, pronouncing and listening to English, and another hour each day taking the common core English class. Elective classes at Hall such as art, computer keyboarding and PE are taken by both ESL and native speakers. Attendance at Hall High is optional for ESL students; parents may send their children to schools in their neighborhood if they wish. When the program started, it served 60 students. Now there are more than 200 ESL students clustered at Hall, most of them Latinos, who make up 20 percent of the population of the school.

A person closely associated with the discussions over the Newcomer Center who wished to remain unidentified over job concerns — here called M — said that Suggs' plans for the Newcomer Center and ESL programs in general have been unclear.

"He's saying, 'We're going to get rid of it,' but I can't pin him down on his plan," M said. "He won't say if this is going to be next year, if this means in four years. He won't commit to anything. But he has flat said in a town meeting that he was going to get rid of the Newcomer Center, and he has said in a public meeting that he will not move the Newcomer Center." During discussions with Suggs, some had suggested moving the Newcomer Center to McClellan High School on Geyer Springs Road to be closer to the center of the Latino population in Southwest Little Rock.

M said the Newcomer Center improves outcomes for ESL students who might otherwise be stuck in the back of a classroom and ignored. M called the percentage of ESL kids who currently go on to take pre-AP and AP courses at Hall "astronomical compared to the rest of the population," adding that the school sent ESL students to Governor's School and Boys and Girls State in recent years, and saw their first ESL Homecoming Queen this year. M said strength in numbers for the Latinos at Hall not only keeps incidents of racially inspired bullying in check, it gives students the confidence to apply to college.

Though Suggs has suggested training ESL teachers in schools throughout in the district to increase services to ESL students, M questioned whether this approach is feasible. "You can say you're going to train teachers," M said, "but with our agreement with our union, you can't make a teacher go get trained. You can't make a teacher go get an endorsement." The classes for ESL training are particularly rigorous, M said, requiring the completion of 12 graduate hours, and many teachers just don't want the hassle. The better system, M said, is the one currently in place, which brings ESL students to a centralized location for intensive, specialized instruction, rather than dispersing them into the greater population where teachers may not have the time to spend on their special needs.

"[Dr. Suggs'] public motive seems to be that he wants to service the Latino population," M said, "but he's not being specific on how he wants to do that. You're not servicing the Latino population by taking away the one stronghold that they have."

Andre Guerrero is a member of LULAC's state education committee and the director of programs for language minority students with the Arkansas Department of Education — though he made it clear he was not speaking on behalf of the Department of Education. Guerrero and other members of LULAC have met with Suggs several times to discuss the issue of how to serve Latino students in the LRSD and the Newcomer Center at Hall.

"He told us that the program was good and he was supporting it. And now, bang, he sort of announces that, no, he's going to dismantle it," Guerrero said.

Guerrero said the Newcomer Center is efficient and makes financial sense. "Staffing, scheduling, funding, so that it is cost-effective to give these kids the extra help they need," he said, "and it's been very, very effective. This is one of the few things that hasn't cost the district a disproportionate amount of money for results." The program was approved by the U.S. Department of Education when it was started in the 1990s, Guerrero said, and isn't "segregation" — only clustering students together for efficiency.

Most of the parents with ESL students at Hall are happy with the system as it is, Guerrero said, and that Hall has proven successful at reaching a vulnerable population. "Nationally, we have a major problem with Hispanic dropouts," he said. "We're doing a good job addressing that through the Newcomer Center. It's helping these kids, they like it, they're moving ahead, they've got a bond with their teachers, they feel wanted and secure and well-taught. That makes sense to me."

In an interview this week, Suggs told the Times he does not want to close the Newcomer Center, and it was "not accurate" that he shot down the idea moving the center to McClellan High.

"We're not closing the Newcomer Center," he said. "We're actually going to expand the services for our English as New Language students." Suggs said he didn't know why those who attended meetings with him got the impression that he would close the center.

"We did speak about the Newcomer Center, but we didn't go into specifics about it," he said. "I think whenever you talk about change, people become nervous and think it's going to end."

Suggs did say he will "rearrange" the Newcomer Center, adding: "Hall High School will change. We will expand the services to [ESL] kids, but that option will always be there [for parents] to send their kids to Hall."

Asked if he would prefer to send ESL students to schools in their own neighborhoods, Suggs said he wanted to give parents and students the option to attend any school they desire, which an expanded ESL system would allow. He said the current mindset regarding ESL students in the district has "a segregation component," which is unacceptable given that Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the LRSD student population.

"I wouldn't say [students are] denied [enrollment at other schools], because they're given the opportunity," he said. "But I would say [there is] that concept of: 'OK, well, we have to send them here.' Well, what if I don't want to go there? If I want to go somewhere else, why not give them the option? I think it's more important that we provide services, because a lot of our families have smaller kids who aren't in high school. We need to make sure we're providing those services at that lower level, which we're not doing a very good job of right now."

Suggs said the discussions about ESL programs and how to fund ESL teacher training are in their infancy and that changes are "not going to happen any time in the near future." He said that paying for those changes will be a matter of shifting resources. He also said he's sure he'll be able to find volunteers or work with the teachers' union to find teachers willing to go through ESL training so programs can be expanded across the district.

"In coming years," he said, "you're going to see a lot of relentless determination to recruit Hispanic, bilingual teachers and paraprofessionals, because we have to provide those services for those students," Suggs said. "You want those students to feel at ease, and the parents to feel at ease, that when they come into the school, they'll have someone who can communicate with them effectively."

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