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.
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