One day not long ago, Ann Patterson asked her fourth-grade daughter, Anna, how her day at Hillcrest School had gone.
"She said she played jump rope with the English-speaking girls," Patterson recounted last week.
"'Why did you play with the English-speaking girls?'" she asked the girl.
The answer: "Because the line is shorter."
In fact, 285 of Hillcrest's 470 students - 60 percent - are in the English as a Second Language program, a number officials say is the result of a rise in international students at Kansas University and an influx of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries.
It's a trend that's starting to spill over into the district's other schools. And with the the number of ESL students projected to double in the next five years across the district, Lawrence Superintendent Randy Weseman has appointed a committee to examine the program's future.
In the meantime, Patterson - the Hillcrest PTO president who has had children in the school for 10 years - finds herself seeking balance on the issue.
On one hand, she appreciates the newfound cultural diversity her daughter experiences at school, 1045 Hilltop Drive.
"It's unbelievably fabulous," Patterson said. "Potluck heaven is what it is. It's a great idea, mixing cultures and languages."
On the other hand, she said: "What's healthy about the program is that there is sort of a mix of neighborhood or English-speaking and the ESL students. That's what makes it work.
"But, we're sort of at a point where the balance is off."
Figures unveiled to Lawrence's school board last week show how quickly the number of ESL students is growing in the district.
RSP & Associates, an Overland Park demographics firm, presented the board with a report that showed there are now 561 students eligible for the ESL services this year out of about 10,300 in the district. About 90 students who would be eligible for the program do not participate at the request of their parents, said Kim Young, a district specialist for federal programs and international students.
ESL programs for the upper grades also are growing, with about 60 students receiving services at Southwest Junior High School and 40 at Lawrence High School.
RSP projected the low-end growth at 673 ESL students by the 2011-2012 school year. The midrange growth was figured at 926 students and the high-range growth was estimated at 1,178 students.
Hillcrest has taken on most of the influx. Principal Tammy Becker said there were 115 ESL students when she arrived at the school six years ago - less than half the current number.
Part of the rise is attributed to a rapid growth of students from Spanish-speaking countries, officials said. Another reason: a rise in the longstanding population of international students at KU.
Because of that second reason, brochures explaining Lawrence's program to new parents are printed in the top five languages spoken by ESL students here: Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Laotian.
"We have kids who come from over 40 countries," Becker said. "They speak over 30 languages."
Those demographics, officials say, have proven attractive to some English-speaking families.
"We receive the benefit of having that cultural diversity," said Janice Nicklaus, who oversees the ESL program for the Lawrence district. "We have families who come in and say, 'I want my child to go to that school because I want them to be exposed to those cultural differences.'"
Patterson feels the same way. But she also thinks the district should find a way to lessen the burden on Hillcrest.
"It seems quite obvious that one school actually can't handle that many kids, because the ESL portion of the school completely overwhelms the neighborhood aspect of the school," she said.
Her suggestion: "Share the wealth" of ESL students with other district schools.
"It's time for a couple of other schools to be like Hillcrest and absorb some of those kids and have everybody enjoy the Hillcrest experience," Patterson said.
In fact, district officials are trying to do just that.
Part of the ESL program was expanded to Cordley School at the beginning of this school year. About 30 kindergarten students were brought in for the first year.
A boundary was set up in the district along 15th Street/Bob Billings Parkway. Students from families new to the district now attend Cordley if they live north of the boundary and outside Hillcrest's enrollment area.
New students who live south of the boundary outside Cordley's enrollment area will attend Hillcrest. Families with children already in Hillcrest will remain there.
More changes are coming.
Weseman said the new ESL committee is to come up with the best way to educate the ESL students and make staffing and facilities recommendations. The committee is looking at several issues, including which other schools might be able to handle ESL programs, he said.
The school board will receive recommendations on what to do about the program before the end of March, he said.