The population of English language learning students in Island public schools continues to grow significantly, program director Leah Palmer told the all-Island school committee this week.

In 2012, there were 73 English learners, Ms. Palmer said. The number has grown every year since, reaching 390 this school year, or 18 per cent of the public school population Islandwide.

ELL program director Leah Palmer presented numbers to the all-Island school committee at a meeting Thursday — Holly Pretsky

In response, the committee voted to commission a professional evaluation of English Language Learning (ELL) programs that will include feedback from students, families and school staff.

The evaluation, set to begin this month, is expected to cost $14,000. Superintendent of schools Dr. Matthew D’Andrea said his office had found savings from over-budgeted employee health insurance to cover the cost.

School committee member Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter 3rd bristled at the suggestion that the funds be used for a purpose other than planned.

“A large expenditure, the money should be a budgeted item,” Mr. Manter said. “Every time we seem to have a savings we seem to have no trouble spending it.”

But committee member Amy Houghton and others said it will benefit the schools to better understand the ELL population. She reminded pointed to a flurry of last-minute teacher hires that were needed last winter due to an unanticipated influx of ELL students.

“I actually think this is critically important,” Ms. Houghton said. “Last year in January, you may recall, we had to bring in teachers mid-year because we didn’t have enough educators to support these learners.”

Robert Lionette, who ultimately joined Mr. Manter in voting against the funding, asked exactly which parts of the program are not working and need evaluation.

Mr. D’Andrea said the problem affects teachers in multiple classes and subjects.

“Classroom teachers are struggling with students coming in with no English. When you get two or three students in your classroom who do not understand a lick of English, it’s tremendously challenging,” Mr. D’Andrea said. “This is going to help us figure that out.”

There are currently no ELL programs in Island preschools.

Ms. Palmer also called for an all-Island action team to respond to recommendations made in the evaluation. The team would be made up of two representatives from every school district: one ELL teacher and one non-ELL teacher.

“We hope to have really good input from them, and they will be kind of the bridge with our school systems,” Ms. Palmer said.