By Sally Absher

In September when County Commission was interviewing candidates to temporarily fill Indya Kincannon’s Second District BOE seat, John Fugate said he thought one of the biggest concerns in the district was the “immigrant problem.” Although some reporters ridiculed him for his slightly non-PC statement, he raised an important issue.

It is an issue he is intimately familiar with. His wife, Sandra Fugate, is the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Program Coordinator at the UT Center for Literacy, Education, and Employment.

According to the KCS ELL website (, the enrollment of English Language Learners (ELLs) in Knox County Schools has doubled within the last five years and continues to increase rapidly. Approximately 2,400 English Learners from more than 60 different countries who speak 80 different languages attended KCS District schools in 2013-2014.

Also known as ESL, (English as a Second Language), the students who do not speak English as their first language represent a variety of backgrounds, home countries, native languages, and immigrant statuses. Many Knox County’s ELL students are born in the US. In fact, last year 79% of all ELL students in Knox County were born in the U.S.

Alyson Lerma, KCS supervisor of world languages and English Language Learners, said that Knoxville is a refugee resettlement area, including families from Cuba, Columbia, Syria, Iraq, Burundi, and Myanmar. But whether ELL students are born in the U.S. as citizens, resettled in Knoxville as refugees, adopted by loving families, or living here in other circumstances, KCS has an obligation to educate them. Excellence for EVERY child.

Knox County has the fourth largest English language learner population in Tennessee. A recent report in the News Sentinel indicated that the number of Hispanic students in Knox County has almost doubled in the past five years, from 4 percent in 2010 to 7.14 percent in 2014.

But ELL students in Knox County Schools are from many cultures and backgrounds in addition to Hispanic.  And not all children of foreign background are ELL students.

For example, 48% of the students at Lonsdale are Hispanic, but ELL students comprise 36% of the 372 students at Lonsdale. These students have origins in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and other Latin countries, as well as, Burundi, Tanzania, and Iraq. The largest percentage of Lonsdale ELL students are Guatemalan, and Spanish is their second language. They speak different dialects of the indigenous form of Mayan, so a large number of these families aren’t literate in Spanish either.

Across town, approximately 16% of Cedar Bluff Elementary students are Hispanic, but the ELL population comprises 11% of the 1138 students at the school.  Cedar Bluff ELL teacher Angie Suffridge said the school also has about 20 transition students, who have passed the ELL test but are monitored for two years as follow up.

Suffridge said when she started in ELL at Cedar Bluff, the school had the largest number of ELL students at any one school in the county.  Last year, data from KCS indicate there were 127 ELL students at Cedar Bluff Elementary, and 133 ELL students at Lonsdale. The district will be updating their data for the 2014-2015 school year this week, according to Lerma.

The majority of Cedar Bluff ELL students are of Latino origin, including Honduras. The second largest population is from Arabic speaking nations, including Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.  There are also students from the Federated States of Micronesia.

Suffridge explained that students are identified as potential ELL-eligible during registration if their parents indicate the child speaks any language other than English. Lerma adds that the family is asked a series of three questions: What is the first language the child spoke as a baby? What is the most frequent language spoken outside the home? And, what is the most frequent language spoken at home?

The child is then given the W-APT (WIDA-ACCESS Placement Test). It is an English language proficiency “screener” given to incoming students who may be designated as English language learners. The test screens for English literacy in reading, writing, listening, and speaking.  Kindergartners are only screened for listening and speaking.

Suffridge said that she feels Knox County is keeping up with the increasing number of ELL students. Currently there are 65 ELL teachers across the system, with four at Cedar Bluff and four at Lonsdale Elementary. Norwood Elementary has three ELL teachers. Many schools within the district share ELL teachers with other schools. Students identified as ELL spend one hour each day with the ELL teacher.

But other ELL teachers have concerns. The Focus spoke with another ELL teacher on the condition of anonymity. One concern is the overlap between ELL, Tier 2 and 3 interventions, Special Education and the Federal IDEA (Individuals with Educational Disabilities Act) law. Effective this year, the state requires all students to be screened for RTI2 (Response to Instruction and Intervention). KCS uses the Renaissance STAR universal screener in grades K-5.

Students who score below the 25th percentile will receive Tier 2 intervention, those below the 10th percentile, who have not made significant progress in Tier 2, or are 1 ½ to 2 grade levels behind will receive Tier 3 intervention. Many ELL students qualify for Tier 2 or 3 interventions.

Students who do not make a certain rate of improvement (ROI) after a period of intervention can be recommended for Special Education. There are exclusions for cultural/first language issues. However, people other than ELL instructors have signed off that the student doesn’t have cultural/first language issues when in fact they do, and placed these students in Special Education when really they do not have a disability, but rather would benefit from direct instruction in English.

And, once the parent or guardian signs permission to start a Special Ed evaluation, the student qualifies for rights under the Federal IDEA law. If needed, accommodations must be made according to the child’s IEP. In Knox County, some students are not receiving all their accommodations needed for either the STAR universal screener, or the controversial SAT-10 assessment.  This is a potential violation of the Special Ed student’s IEP and ELL student’s allowable accommodation.

These are issues that need to be addressed to fulfill the KCS mission of Excellence for every child.