Like the legendary Tower of Babel said to have been built in Babylonia centuries ago, the true epicenter for language diversity in Burbank may be in its school district.
Nearly 50 languages other than English are being spoken by students, with the number of English learners speaking Armenian rising, according to a Burbank Unified staff report to the school board on June 6.
Jennifer Goldenberg, the district’s coordinator of English language services, presented a review by the district’s English Learner Advisory Committee.
English learners are classified as students who are not fluent in English, ranging from Level One, or “minimally developed,” to Level Three, or “moderately developed.”
Students need to reach Level Four, or “well developed,” to be reclassified as fluent.
Goldenberg said Burbank Unified had 54 fewer English learners than last year’s total of 1,637, which marked the third straight year of declines and the fewest students since a 10-year low of 1,574 in 2014.
The report included statistical information showing that 44% of the district’s English learners spoke Armenian, which is a 10-percentage point lead over Spanish.
The gap between the two top languages has widened in just the past three years.
In the 2016-17 school year, Armenian speakers nipped past Spanish speakers, 38% to 37%. The following school year, Armenians increased their percentage lead to 42%, compared to 36% for Spanish speakers.
Arabic was the third most-spoken language among English learners, coming in at 5%, with Russian at 4%, Tagalog at 2% and Korean at 1%. The district also had 10% of its students speaking “other” languages.
“The ‘other’ category is growing a little bit more,” Goldenberg said. “There are a lot of different languages that don’t have [an educational] code in them from the state and so they are considered ‘other,’ but we also like to keep track of what those languages are.”
Goldenberg added that 45 languages other than English are spoken in the district, with 33 spoken at Burbank High School, 31 at Muir Middle School and 28 at Burroughs High School.
Before delivering her report, Goldenberg said she spent part of her day tracking down a quadrilingual translator to speak to a parent.
“When we are trying to meet the needs, especially language needs, of such a diverse population, we have translators who speak certain languages, but there are certain languages we don’t,” Goldenberg said.
Miller Elementary School has the district’s highest number of English learners, with 262 students, which is roughly 35% of the 754-student population. Of that group, 76% speak Armenian, while 11% are Spanish speakers.
Burbank High School is second among English learners with 191 students, while Emerson Elementary is third with 169 students.
Washington Elementary has the highest percentage of English-learning Spanish speakers, at 37%, and Arabic speakers, at 15%.
The number of Title III eligible immigrants also rose this school year, to 532 students, a more than 100-participant increase since 420 of them enrolled during the 2013-14 school year.
Title III students, according to the California Department of Education, must be between 3 and 21 years old, have been born outside the 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, and not have attended a U.S. school for more than three years.
A portion of state funding is set aside annually to pay for special programs dedicated to Title III students, which include family literacy, basic instructional services and mentoring.
English is still Burbank Unified’s dominant language, with 64% of student speakers, while Spanish and Armenian tied for second at 14%.
Regarding the reclassification rate, the local district is outperforming both the county and state averages.
This past school year, the district reclassified 18.8% of English learners as fluent, which beat the county’s and state’s rates of 17.7% and 13.8%, respectively.
Burbank Unified’s rate also topped its 18.4% performance from last year.