The number of English-language learners and refugee students in the Omaha Public Schools continues to surge, with one in three OPS students speaking a language other than English at home.
Omaha's growing Hispanic population and the city's position as a resettlement hub for refugees are two of the driving forces behind the rise of students in the English-language learner program.
Today, OPS's research division will present the 2013-14 “English Language Learner and Refugee Report,” an annual publication that outlines the number of students receiving language services, their countries of origin and the number of languages spoken in their homes.
This year's report finds:
» 7,000 students — 14 percent of OPS's K-12 student population — participate in the district's English as a Second Language program.
» Thirty-two percent of current K-12 students have received language services at school at some point.
» More than 15,000 students speak a language other than English at home.
The number of students receiving language help represents an 11 percent increase from the last school year, a jump that the report attributes to legislation signed in 2012, more refugee students and a large kindergarten class this school year.
Nearly 80 percent of students who speak a language at home other than English speak Spanish. The next most prevalent are Karen, a language spoken by an ethnic minority of Myanmar; Nuer, a language spoken in South Sudan and parts of Ethiopia; and Somali.
The percentage of students learning English has grown by 380 percent in the past two decades. During the 1996-97 school year, just 3 percent of the district's population — 1,500 students — qualified for language help.
The number of refugees has exploded, too — an increase of 84 percent over the past five years. There are currently 1,800 refugee students in OPS; they make up 3.8 percent of the OPS student body, hail from 12 different countries and speak more than 109 different languages.
Most refugee students were born in Thailand, Myanmar, Kenya and Sudan, and a growing number are from Southeast Asian countries.
The district has bumped up its programs for immigrant and refugee children as a result of the trends, said Dawn Mathis, a language teacher and trainer for OPS.
The district is partnering with Concordia University to get more teachers certified to instruct English-language learners.
At the high school level, Mathis said, teachers are noting increases in the number of students from Guatemala, El Salvador, Bhutan, Nepal and Thailand, especially at the Teen Literacy Center. Many had little schooling in their home countries and may not be able to read or write in their native languages, much less in English.
“It is tough for students to come to a new country,” she said. “It'd different than what they're used to, they're having to learn a language and the day-to-day routines of what we have here, plus the normal struggles of being a teenager.”
A recent needs analysis, part of OPS's ongoing strategic plan process, noted the district's difficulty in reaching all its English-language learner and refugee students.
Less than 50 percent of teachers surveyed believed that bilingual, English-language learner and general education teachers regularly come together to plan and oversee instruction for English-language learners.
Classroom observations also unearthed some clumsy attempts at cultural awareness.
One teacher overseeing several students reading aloud told them not to worry about pronouncing the “weird” Asian names of several characters — this, despite the fact that many students in the class were of Asian descent and had names similar to those in the story.