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Indianapolis Public Schools plans school for kids new to the country

Indianapolis Public Schools have a new idea for teaching students who have recently arrived in the country: A school dedicated to helping recent arrivals find their bearings and learn English.

The idea comes as the city receives a growing number of new arrivals — and the district educates more than 4,500 kids still learning English. The “newcomer” school, modeled on similar programs in cities like New York with large immigrant populations, was pitched to the IPS school board during its meeting last night.

The school would offer instruction designed to help kids master English and would serve as a hub for immigrant families, connecting them with community organizations offering everything from healthcare to adult education programs..

The school would be the first of its kind in Indiana. The board has not yet approved the plan, but if it receives support from the board, administrators hope to open the school this fall.

New York City has several schools for recent immigrants, and IPS staffers visited schools across the country when designing the potential school — including Columbus Global Academy, an Ohio school founded in 2009.

The board was generally supportive of the proposal but members asked to see more information about cost and student outcomes in other places before making a decision.

“I’m assuming that the end game of all of this is that these kids are a lot more successful eventually,” said Board President Mary Ann Sullivan.

Many specialized newcomer programs have shown strong results in the short-term, with student growth in English proficiency outpacing other methods of instruction for English language learners, according to Deborah Short, who has been researching newcomer programs for more than two decades. But there is no good empirical research on the long-term impact of the programs, she said.

In a dedicated newcomer program, teachers can focus on the English skills students need without as much pressure to get through content on the state standards, Short said. In a mixed classroom, students who are learning English might end up developing language skills in some subject areas — while struggling with basics like how to use prepositions.

“Their social and academic language sometimes looks a little bit like Swiss cheese,” Short said. “They know key terms that teachers are highlighting, but they don’t know the words to talk about those key terms.”

The new IPS program would have a soft launch next fall, beginning as a school within a school serving students in grades 7-9 at Northwest Community High School, which already educates many recent immigrants. In its second year, leaders hope to move to the Gambold building — also on the Northwest side — and expand the school to serve kids as young as third grade.

The program targets adolescents because older kids have more difficulty picking up the language in traditional schools, said Jessica Feeser, who coordinates English as a second language programs for IPS. In early grades, she said, the standard curriculum is heavily focused on language development and literacy so it’s easier for young immigrants who don’t yet speak English to learn alongside their native-speaking peers.

“At third grade is when we really see a difference between a student who may be brand new to the country with little literacy skills compared to (native speakers),” Feeser said.

The idea behind the newcomer school, said Tammy Bowman, a district curriculum officer involved in planning, is to serve entire families who have recently arrived in the city, rather than just children.

IPS is already reaching out to community partners that could help support immigrant families including immigrant service groups, faith-based organizations and healthcare providers.

The IPS newcomer school would be open to students who’ve been in the country less than a year and are in the early stages of learning English. The program would serve students with test scores that place them up to level three on WIDA, a measure of fluency.

That’s an unusually high level of proficiency for students to attend newcomer schools, said Short, who worries the district could use the school to shift kids out of classrooms where teachers are not trained to work with students who are learning English.

“Sometimes you do have the sense that the teachers are overwhelmed because they haven’t had the training they need to work with these students,” Short said.

Admission to the school would be voluntary, and the district expects the school to serve only about 160 students in its second year — a fraction of the English language learners in the district. Students would only stay in the school one year before transferring  to another school.

One possible hitch for the program, however, is that it could be relatively expensive. In its second year, it’s expected to cost about $1.3 million. That’s about $8,269 per student — significantly more than median cost of educating students in IPS. But the district already offers extra services to students learning English, and officials could not immediately provide an estimate of how much it costs to educate similar students in traditional schools.

“I think it’s a great proposal,” said Kelly Bentley, a board member. “But that money comes from somewhere and so we just need to be very clear about how much it is.”