Twenty years ago, public schools in Whitfield County, Ga., had just three non-English-speaking students. Today there are more than 1,700, or about 1 in every 6 students.
The number of English as a Second Language teachers has grown as well, from 1 in 1989 to 49 today.
The county's dramatic rise in the number of non-English-speaking students illustrates what has happened in public schools across the Chattanooga area and the nation. The result has been changes in everything from school spending to the way classes are taught.
The growth of ESL programs in the Chattanooga area far exceeds the increase nationally. Nationwide, the number of English learners increased more than 50 percent between school years 1997-98 and 2007-08, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
During the same period, the numbers grew 200 percent in Tennessee and more than 400 percent in Georgia, Department of Education figures show.
The growth has meant the expenditure of million of dollars for some school districts - more than $3 million last year for Whitfield County Schools alone.
Rising costs for education and other services is a key point of contention in the nation's ongoing debate over immigration.
"Anytime you have an expansion in ESL students, you are going to have an expansion in the cost of running the school," said Bryan Griffith, spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a self-described low-immigration think-tank in Washington, D.C.
But others say the cost of doing nothing would be even greater.
"The worst thing you can have is uneducated, non-English speakers in your country because they are the burden on the system because they can't do what they want and they can't be as productive as possible," said University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel.
The rapid growth in the number of English learners in the region is not unexpected.
Whitfield County saw a dramatic increase in Hispanic immigrants in the 1990s, mainly workers attracted to the area by the carpet mills and floorcovering industry.
According to U.S. census estimates - which tend to be lower due to lack of participation among Hispanics - there were 29,000 Hispanics in Whitfield County in 2009, up from 2,300 in 1990. In Hamilton County, there were 11,500 Hispanics in 2009, up from 1,900 in 1990.
"These folks are coming to the United States for job opportunities, bringing their kids or having their kids here and we basically want them Americanized and ready to take advantage of the system as quickly as possible so we are not creating structures of dependency," Bachtel said.
For local school districts, dealing with the non-English speakers is a work in progress.
While the growth has been driven largely by Spanish speakers, the number of students who speak other languages - from Russian to Swahili - has grown as well.
"In many cases, the basic teaching strategies have reversed when it comes to helping students whose first language is not English," Eric Beavers, Whitfield County Schools spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.
"Teachers used to pull students out of the classroom for a segment of instruction to improve their English-speaking skills, then send them back to learn math, science and their other subjects," he said.
About seven or eight years ago, though, educators began to develop strategies to break down language barriers and teach regular content - math, science, etc. - while at the same time strengthening students' English language skills.
This year, Hamilton County Schools started a similar approach.
AROUND THE REGION
Here's a look at English as a Second Language programs in selected school districts:
* Hamilton County Schools
Mid-1990s, seven teachers served 261 students
2010, 38 teachers serving more than 1,500 students
* Cleveland City Schools
1995, one teacher served 32 students
2010, 5 1/2 teachers serving 237 students
* Bradley County School
2000, one teacher served 18 students
2010, four teachers serving about 140 students
* Dalton Public Schools
1990, two teachers served about 55 students
2010, 25 teachers serving 1,113 students.
* Whitfield County Schools
1989, one teacher serving three students
2010, 49 teachers serving 1,704 students.
Top five languages, by number, spoken by English Language Learners:
2. Kanjobal and Mam (two Guatemalan dialects)
Source: Hamilton County Schools
"We are offering development training [on teaching non-English speakers] not only for ESL teachers but for regular teachers as well because the majority of the [students'] time is going to be spent with the regular teacher," said K-12 ESL Director Julie Legg.
Non-ESL teachers have had to learn how to modify their instruction to help English learners, said Terri Murray, federal programs director for Bradley County Schools.
"You want to make them feel welcome and that you can teach them," she said.
In Whitfield County, a total of $3.2 million - close to $6 million when Dalton Public Schools is included - was spent on the ESOL program in fiscal year 2010, funded by a combination of state and federal money earmarked specifically for that purpose, the districts' spokespersons said.
"If those students were not here, we would not earn the funding used to pay those teachers," said Beavers, with Whitfield County Schools.
Hamilton County Schools did not provide a specific figure, but Anjelika Riano, ESL coach for the district, said the cost per pupil is the same for an English learner than for a non-English learner, which in 2009 was $9,334. In addition, Title III federal funds are used for instructional support materials, enrichment and remediation programs, professional development, and parent or community engagement. The salaries of the 38 ESL teachers and six interpreters are paid out of the district's general budget.
The Cleveland City ESL program cost $375,073 this year, including the salaries of the 5 1/2 teachers, three teaching assistants and materials, said Ann Culbreth, supervisor for federal programs at Cleveland City Schools.
Griffith, spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, said dealing with non-English-speaking students is just the tip of the iceberg.
"All sorts of government-run services are going to have to be expanded over the next 50 years because 80 percent of the population growth is coming from immigration in general and that's with the current rates," he said. "So you are going to have more people in your schools, more people in your roads, more people using police services."
School officials said they are morally and legally obligated to serve any student who walks into their doors the best they can.
"Our job is to educate kids and that is our priority," Legg said.
And Bachtel said making sure every student learns English is simply good business.
"The bottom line is making these folks as productive as possible as quickly as possible," he said, especially because they are part of a growing number of immigrants in the country. "This ain't rocket science."
While school districts have increased the number of English as a Second Language teachers and hired interpreters to keep up with the growth, most school officials agree they are not where they want to be.
"I project steady growth and I would like to see a full-time teacher in each school," said Culbreth. "[But] I don't know whether we will get to that point or not. It's hard to come up with the extra money unless you are forced to based on [student-teacher] ratio."
In Hamilton County, Legg said they they hope to hire more interpreters because they realize how important it is to have parent involvement.
Riano, who also used to work for Dalton City Schools, remembers how difficult it was as a non-English speaking parent with an English-learner child when she lived in California.
"I was lucky that I spoke Spanish and could find someone to translate for me," said the Ukraine native who migrated to the United States 14 years ago.
"It's a life changing experience," she said. "You really have to understand what they are going through."