Courtesy Jimmy Emerson/
United States / English Language Learners

Learning English in the Heartland

Rural schools rarely have the resources necessary to provide adequate support for English Language Learners (ELLs). International immigration into rural areas has significantly increased in recent years, but barriers to providing sufficient support for the children of immigrants in rural public schools still remain. What effect does inadequate ELL education have on the experience of students and on the quality of the school? Why is this issue only now being discussed? What should be done?

The increase of foreign immigration into rural areas partly stems from the overall increase of immigration to the United States. The number of immigrants entering the United States grew by 2.5 percent, or one million people, between 2013 and 2014. The number of children from immigrant families grew thirty-four percent (from 13.1 million to 17.5 million) between 2000 and 2014. This growth poses a challenge to public school systems who must work to accommodate students who need additional support in order to learn both English and the material simultaneously.

Foreign immigrants make up the largest share of net migration into rural areas. According to education researchers David Brown and Kai A. Schafft, this shift is “creating both new opportunities and new challenges for rural receiving communities.” Currently, forty-four percent of ELL students reside in rural areas. They are often drawn by the high availability of low skill jobs in industries such as agriculture, construction, animal processing, and leather tanning, according to J. Steve Oliver of the University of Georgia.

According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, there are 5.1 million ELLs in elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Eighty percent of immigrant students speak Spanish, and the other twenty percent speak at least one of over four hundred different languages. Attempting to teach students from such a variety of cultures, backgrounds, and languages is a daunting task. Because of pedagogical challenges as well as factors such as disrupted education, language barriers, and limited parental education, test scores are typically lower and dropout rates are higher for ELLs in American public schools. These statistics are exacerbated for students in rural areas.

In cities, schools often have full-time staff members dedicated to assisting ELLs, but in rural schools, where there are only a few ELLs and resources are already tight, providing proper support is more difficult. Rural schools rarely receive federal discretionary grants for ELLs’ education. The small addition to the per pupil expenditure that the government provides for ELLs is not enough to cover the expenditures of a full-fledged program because of the small number of students. At the local level, it is nearly impossible  for administrators to come up with these funds. According to the Education Alliance of Brown University, “Administrators in rural schools, though perhaps well intentioned, do not tend to place ELL policy, budget, and other support mechanisms, very high among the school’s priorities.”

Without these resources, it is hard to provide the faculty, teacher training programs, and direct resources necessary for ELLs. Teachers often must figure out how to help students on a case-by-case basis. These teachers are frequently ill-prepared to teach students of color due to the demographics of their regions, where they are accustomed to teaching a homogenous, white population of students, and tend to be white themselves. It is hard to attract teachers to rural areas at all, and attracting teachers of color is even more difficult. This further isolates students who are not white. Additional teacher training on adapting a curriculum to a diverse group of students could help to solve the problem of preparation (if not the whiteness of teachers), but again, a scarcity of resources hinders this process. Rural schools are farther from universities and nonprofits that provide instructions and supplementary training in teaching ELLs, and it is therefore logistically much harder for teachers to receive the training they need. If they make the extra effort to seek out extra professional development, it often costs more.

The new standardization movement in public education has brought students who are learning English in rural schools into the spotlight. Rural schools are required to provide the same quality of education to their few ELLs as urban schools are for their larger populations of ELLs. Mary Strange, policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust, attributes the slight uptick in the attention given to these students to the standardization movement occurring in public schools today. “What’s different in the last few years is it’s clear there’s an obligation to take care of these kids,” Strange said. The No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001, mandated that ELLs pass language proficiency standardized tests. ELLs are expected to move up one English language proficiency level each year, and then be monitored for two years once fluent. In the climate of today’s American public school system, student performance on these standardized tests is important. Standardized test scores are tied to aid packages, and if students perform poorly, teachers can be fired or schools may be shut down. According to Stephan J. Goetz of Pennsylvania State University, in these small rural schools, the scores of one or two ELLs can sway a school’s average.

Further research is first step in working to help rural schools adequately meet the needs of ELLs. Some work has been done on teaching and learning English as a second language, and there is a collection of literature regarding education in rural communities, but little has been accomplished to address the intersection of these topics. According to the Education Alliance of Brown University, “There are no national models for ELL rural programs and policies, affecting the knowledge base of best practices.” More research needs to be done on the most effective ways to implement these programs in rural areas.

Technology could also improve the education of ELLs in rural schools. Online teacher training programs, while not a perfect substitute for face-to-face interaction with teachers, could work to fill the gap in training that exists now. Alternatively, trained individuals could hold video conferences to help students. This might be especially helpful if students come in without any English ability and no staff members speaks their native languages. Online classes might also be a good option for these students to receive the specialized and individualized education that they need.

School consolidation, though controversial, might benefit students learning English as a second language in some cases. Many communities are opposed to school consolidation because it threatens the close-knit nature of communities, increases class sizes, and requires the time and costs of transportation. But money saved from school consolidation could be reallocated to ELL programs. Paying for a teacher and resources for ELLs at a rural school with only four students is not economically feasible, but if two similar schools are combined, it becomes much more likely that a school can afford ample resources to support these students.

Rural schools might have advantages over urban schools if teachers can find a way to receive adequate training. Teachers are better able to know their students in the small communities of rural areas. Urban teachers of ELLs often have classrooms of twenty or thirty students from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds who speak a variety of first languages, but rural teachers usually have only a handful of students who do not speak English, allowing for more tailored instruction. Thus, if financial barriers are overcome, it would be possible to provide a high quality of education to currently underserved ELLs in rural schools.