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Magerly Gonzalez Torres, left, and Yaritza Gonzalez Pagan, both from Puerto Rico, are students in Mandan Public Schools' English learners program. On Friday, they attend class with three other students at Mandan High School. School districts across the state have seen an increase in English learners in the past five years. Mandan reported having 78 this school year, compared with just five in 2011.

The population of English learners has been increasing in North Dakota schools — most recently in rural districts.

“It’s growing. The need there is growing," said Lyle Krueger, executive director of the Missouri River Educational Cooperative, one of eight regional education associations in the state. The MREC is comprised of 37 school districts in south-central North Dakota.

In rural districts, Krueger said the numbers are sporadic. They may not have an English learner for years; then, when they do, they are often at a loss to offer help.

"They need the assistance," Krueger said.

During the 2015-16 school year, 78 districts in North Dakota had English learners, according to Lodee Arnold, administrator of EL programs for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. In 2011-12, that number was 69.

“The whole picture of the state looks quite a bit different than it did probably five, six years ago," Arnold said. "Some of those districts may have one or two students, but you can imagine what kind of challenge that poses to them, because how do they serve them if they don’t have an EL teacher?" 

In North Dakota, 116 languages are spoken, including Spanish, Somali, Nepali, Bosnian and Arabic.

The cities with the highest English learner student enrollment are Fargo, West Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and Williston, Arnold said. Bismarck ranks among the highest in beginning-level English speakers.

"It used to be primarily in the eastern part of the state, but now it has expanded more west," said Arnold, pointing out that western North Dakota, including Williston and Dickinson, are seeing increases.

Growing numbers

David Richter, chairman of the North Dakota Regional Education Association  the state's network of regional education organizations  said needs for English learner services vary between large and small school districts.

To procure money to pay for EL services, a district has to apply for Title III funding from the federal government. To qualify, a district has to meet a certain financial threshold, which typically means a large number of English learner students — which smaller districts might not have, but still need the services. The state monitors the flow of the money; and, to take into account the smaller districts with English learners, it allows districts to form consortiums.

Richter, who is also director of the Great North West Educational Cooperative, said there's a consortium of about eight schools in Williston, most of them with four or five English learners each.

About five years ago, the first consortium Richter handled extended from Williston to Trenton and over to Devils Lake. Now, Williston has its own, as does Minot.

Some school districts have gone from having four or five English learners to more than double that number. Richter said Williston has 150 now, compared with fewer than 20 five years ago.

“It’s not a steady number, and I think that’s what gets the smaller schools, when all of a sudden two or three students show up. They don’t have anything in place, and then they have to scramble," he said.

Services lacking

Riley Mattson, director of the Roughrider Education Services Program in Dickinson, said English learner services were lacking when he started at RESP three years ago.

"There was that need coming from the superintendents. We need to do something to help," he said.

About two years ago, RESP hired a full-time staff member who provides English learner services to about 20 students in six school districts, according to Mattson. 

“It’s worked out great, and I don’t know what our schools would do without it," he said.

Next year, the grant through which the position was created will run out. 

"Our districts want these services — they need it — so they’re willing to help pitch in part of her salary," Mattson said.

Consolidation of needs

In response to a greater need, a bill was introduced recently to help alleviate the costs faced by many rural districts when English learner instructors are hired. 

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kyle Davison, R-Fargo, did not pass in a committee meeting last week, according to Sen. Donald Schaible, R-Mott.

The bill would have allowed regional education associations, such as the Missouri River Educational Cooperative, to use funding to help districts with English learners. The bill did not pass after Davison expressed concerns over unintended consequences, said Schaible.

Davison said by email that he is not planning to reintroduce any legislation regarding English learner services. Still, some regional education association directors said the need exists for many rural schools, and legislators should be aware of it.

“We know this may not be the most appropriate time, but you know what? We just want to make legislators aware. Those needs are out there, and if it takes a couple of sessions to get it through, we’re willing to do that," Mattson said. 

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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