Decatur City Schools is establishing a center that will help students who are not proficient in English and new immigrant students who speak no English transition to their home schools.

Instead of having English Language Learner teachers in every school, the district will place the teachers in a designated area at Austin High School and they will be “laser-focused” on getting students proficient in English, said Stephanie Underwood, who is director of special services for the school system.

“Experts and research say it takes five to seven years to get a student proficient in English, but we want to break that barrier,” she said.

The move is part of the district’s plan to improve test scores that have made little progress since the state started administering the ACT Aspire standards three years ago. The test requires a significant amount of reading, which compounds the difficulty for students who are not proficient in English, school leaders said.

“We want to accelerate English proficiency and academics,” Underwood said.

Superintendent Dan Brigman said Austin Assistant Principal Ressa Chittam will assume responsibility for the center.

“We’re going to provide support to all the classrooms in the district with a focus on our non-English speaking student population,” the superintendent said.

Brigman said the center will not be a “long-term setting” for students, but a place where teachers zero in on helping them gain English proficiency.

This is also a voluntary supplemental program because Decatur can't legally force students away from their home school to the center, he said.

Decatur is not the first school district in the state to establish this type of center. In response to its rising Hispanic population, Baldwin County started a center two years ago and Jefferson County added one in 2015.

Decatur’s Hispanic student population has increased from 1 percent in 1996 to 24 percent last year. In the past two years, the district has had situations where students who spoke no English enrolled and had no place to go to transition into the school system.

“This is going to be a sheltered environment for students who do not speak English,” Underwood said.

But like Brigman, she pointed out the center is not intended to be a permanent school and the district can’t require students to attend.

“We’re not trying to segregate a student population,” Underwood said.

In April, Joe Adams, of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, put the issue of what Decatur was doing to help students not proficient in English on the table when he presented his annual comparison of how Decatur students are performing compared to students in school districts statewide and in nearby districts.

Unlike in past years, he went beyond district-by-district comparisons, and said Decatur has to focus more on the Hispanic student population that is disconnected from the community. He said this demographic was struggling most with the new standards because they likely didn’t have a vocabulary large enough to understand some questions on the test.

Decatur City Schools testing coordinator Wanda Davis said 670 students who took ACT Aspire in March were not proficient in English. Students in grades 3 through 8 take the test.

The second round of results the state released in November showed the majority of Decatur’s students continued to read below state averages and are not on track to be college- or career-ready when they graduate.

Underwood said the district has identified 137 students who need support and will benefit from the center.

She said they continue to work out details and will present a proposal to the board Tuesday. But the initial plan is for students to attend some classes at their home schools and come to the center part of the day.

“We’re still working on staff for the center, but we have some big goals with this program,” Underwood said.

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