California schools step up efforts to help 'long-term English learners'

Students who are still not fluent in English after years in California schools are getting more attention

After more than 11 years in Los Angeles public schools, Dasha Cifuentes still isn't speaking or writing English at grade level. The U.S. native, whose parents are Mexican immigrants, was raised in a Spanish-speaking household and she acknowledges that the two languages get confused in her mind.

"I should be more confident in English because I was born here, but I'm embarrassed that I haven't improved myself," said Dasha, a junior at Fairfax High.

Now, however, she and other students like her are receiving more attention under a new state law and initiatives by L.A. Unified and other school districts. The law requires the state to define and identify a "long-term English learner," the first effort in the nation to do so.

In its inaugural data released Wednesday, the state has identified nearly 350,000 students in grades six through 12 who have attended California schools for seven years or more and are still not fluent in English. They make up three-fourths of all secondary school students still learning English.

Among them, nearly 90,000 are classified as long-term English learners because they also have failed to progress on the state's English proficiency exam for two consecutive years and score below grade level in English standardized tests.

"These kids need to be visible," said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman of Californians Together, a Long Beach-based nonprofit that promoted the legislation and released the state data. "In many instances, these students are sitting in mainstream classes and are not getting any specialized help."

A 2010 study by the nonprofit found that many students languished because schools failed to monitor their progress, provide appropriate curriculum or train teachers. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state for allegedly failing to provide legally required services for students learning English.

In addition, Fairfax Principal Carmina Nacorda said, more than 70% of her 125 long-term English learners have educational disabilities. And many educators say that students who achieve fluency in their first language more easily learn English, but that Proposition 227, the 1998 voter-approved state initiative that severely restricted bilingual education, has impeded them from doing so.

The new focus on such students comes amid a shift in California's long-running language wars. Since Proposition 227, a counter-movement has grown promoting the teaching of two languages in dual-immersion classes. State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) has successfully placed a measure to repeal the proposition on the November 2016 ballot.

In L.A. Unified, about a third of the 600,000 students are learning English and more than 35,000 of them are still not at grade level after five years. The district has overhauled its services for such students after a 2011 settlement with the U.S. Education Department's civil rights division, which found they had been seriously shortchanged.

Among other things, L.A. Unified has developed two new classes aimed at strengthening language skills for students like Dasha and beefed up teacher training. In addition, the district requires all teachers to try to develop relationships with the parents as well as their students to keep them informed about progress.

At Fairfax, Dasha said the new efforts have helped. On a recent morning, she and her classmates watched a "60 Minutes" documentary on Lakers point guard Jeremy Lin. Her teacher, Serafin Alvarez, then peppered the students with questions about it to check their understanding. What inspired Lin to play basketball? How many colleges offered him scholarships? What helped him succeed?

Few of the 10 students answered the questions correctly, but it was unclear whether they didn't understand the documentary or didn't care to pay attention. Alvarez said student apathy is one of his biggest challenges in teaching the more sophisticated language needed for college and careers — a recent vocabulary list included "mandated," "effective," "interact" and "discipline," words few of the students hear at home, he said.

Dasha said she ignored her problem for years, failing to follow the advice of her teachers and parents to read books and use the dictionary. She said she was ashamed of her limited skills and too scared to ask for help.

"Now, I'm regretting my life not developing myself into a better person, and that hurts me the most," she said.

But she said the pace of the Fairfax classes are slower and the teachers more patient. In addition, a Fairfax program linking each student to a mentor teacher has helped her talk about her problems, she said.

"I'm more motivated, like a turtle coming out of its shell," she said.

At Parkview Elementary in El Monte, teachers try to prevent students from stagnating in English through a program recognized for excellence this week by the California School Boards Assn. The Sobrato Early Academic Language program pushes students in preschool through third grade to use richer language in curriculum incorporating literature, social studies and science taught through such popular themes as animals and the solar system.

All of the classrooms feature similar techniques jointly developed by teachers. This includes "collaborative conversation" between pairs of students to develop oral skills, charts labeled with words to build vocabulary and frequent writing assignments.

Victor Gutierrez, the 6-year-old son of Mexican immigrants, recently showed off one of his opinion essays — why strawberries are the best fruit ever — complete with an introduction, arguments and a conclusion. He described the "anthology" he read, then explained the earth's "components."

Laurie Olsen, an expert in the field who developed the program, said such creative initiatives have been growing as the state data have pushed districts to deal with the problem.

"Without the data, these students remained invisible," she said, adding that "it's been powerful to see the sense of urgency unlocked among schools to help them."

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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