Flags of many nations fly at Independence High, which includes an Academy of International Studies. Ann Doss Helms ahelms@charlotteobserver.com
Flags of many nations fly at Independence High, which includes an Academy of International Studies. Ann Doss Helms ahelms@charlotteobserver.com


CMS has more English learners than other NC districts. Here’s why that matters.

By Ann Doss Helms


December 04, 2017 09:21 AM

The ranks of immigrant students learning English grew by more than 12,000 students across North Carolina this year, with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leading the list.

The tally, which will be presented to the state Board of Education this week, is another sign of the changing face of public education. Public schools, especially those in the large urban districts, are seeing steep growth in the number of students who need help mastering the language, even as overall enrollment flattens.

For instance: The first-month count of all students in North Carolina districts and charter schools grew by only about 3,500 this year, about two-tenths of a percent. But the count of English learners, taken at the same time, grew by 12,759, or 13 percent.

The trend isn’t limited to North Carolina. Last week McGraw-Hill Education publicized results of an educator survey that indicated the number of English learners is growing rapidly in the South, the Northeast and the Midwest.

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EL students make up one of the fastest-growing student populations in the United States, and educators and school leaders have to think differently about how to meet their needs,” said Heath Morrison, who was CMS superintendent from 2012 to 2014 and went on to become an executive with McGraw-Hill.

108,664 English learner students in North Carolina

19,794 in CMS

13,414 in Wake County

A growing immigrant population puts demands on a school system, which has to find teachers who can help students learn the language while mastering other academic skills. Those positions are often hard to fill.

But CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and some board members say students who speak multiple languages and families from other cultures can also be an asset in a global economy. The district is preparing to expand world language magnet programs, including those that let students learn in both Spanish and English.

South Mecklenburg High helped its English learner students tell their stories of immigration in 2016.
Davie Hinshaw Observer file photo

Spanish-speakers account for the largest number of English learners in CMS, but the district has students from 160 nations.

CMS is second to Wake County in total enrollment but has 19,794 English learners this year, compared with 13,414 in Wake.

The English learner tally is required by state law and will be presented to the General Assembly after the state board approves it. An even larger number of students come from homes where English isn’t the first language, but if they’re proficient themselves they’re not counted as English learners.

North Carolina’s four biggest districts – Wake, CMS, Guilford County and Winston-Salem/Forsyth – account for 28.5 percent of all enrollment but 42.5 percent of all English learners, according to state tallies.

105,934 English learners in NC school districts

2,730 in charter schools

272 in Mecklenburg charter schools

English learners are far more likely to attend traditional public schools than charter schools – hardly surprising, given that language barriers could keep families from applying for the independent public schools, and that school districts tend to have more staff dedicated to help students learn English.

But charters are serving a growing number of English learners, with the total growing from almost 1,900 to more than 2,700 statewide and from 141 to 272 in Mecklenburg charter schools. Several Mecklenburg charters report having at least 10 English learners (smaller numbers are not reported), with Matthews Charter Academy reporting the largest number at 71.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms