The continued segregation of impoverished English learners in failing inner-city schools harms students as well as the abiding interest of society to have educated citizens capable of participating in all social and economic opportunities. Low economic status and low educational achievement go hand in hand.
Proposition 227 ended the 25-year failed program of transitional bilingual education, in which students were taught all or mostly in their native language during their first years in school. With little exposure to a rich English vocabulary and English grammatical structures, students never developed complex language skills. Most English learners are born in the United States and have been in school since kindergarten. Learning in Spanish — most English learners are Spanish-speaking — was of little value in developing academic English and helping these learners keep up with English speakers who continued to progress in their language skills. The schools’ primary job isn’t to promote home language and heritage cultures, but rather to teach academic competence in English so students can flourish scholastically.
Teaching English by teaching in English was the necessary first step in helping these students achieve academic literacy. The post-Proposition 227 concern we must now turn to is teaching English learners the complex academic English needed to succeed in school.
Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center that I started in downtown Los Angeles, has a two-classroom charter school for kindergartners and first-graders. Its structured English immersion program is organized around the belief that poor children can achieve at the same academic level as their more affluent peers when provided the same educational opportunities. All 40 students in the school are poor enough to qualify for free meals. All are Latino and all started school as English learners. All live in households below the poverty line.
Each year, our first-grade students are redesignated as English fluent. That’s not surprising; the school offers two years of a highly academic, structured English instruction. It also has an extended year of 198 days — compared with 173 days in the Los Angeles Unified School District — and an extended day of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The work of readying these students for a bright academic future is a matter of constant study and improvement on our part. Most of our students go on to Brentwood Science Magnet, one of this city’s best and most integrated schools. Even so, as Las Familias tracked their progress, it became clear that some children struggled to complete challenging academic work requiring more sophisticated background knowledge and English skills.
Academic language is not the same as everyday speech. We were teaching academic English in our school, but not strongly reinforcing it in a systematic and intentional way. By the age of 3, English learners and other disadvantaged students possess less than one-third of the vocabulary acquired by children living with educated parents, even in their native languages. Here’s the kind of talk I hear from mothers at Lacy Park in San Marino: “Look at those palm trees. I like the tall skinny one in the middle. Which one do you like?” Overheard at a park in East Los Angeles: “Go play.” “Stop running.” Richer use of language and concepts in early years, no matter what language it’s in, is key to mastering academic English.
To remedy this, our charter school added two language programs designed to systematically teach the background knowledge, vocabulary and complex sentence structure English learners are lacking.
It is a pernicious excuse to say children fail because they are English learners. Many students remain classified as English learners for fiscal reasons. In 2006, one local elementary school with 1,419 students designated 1,123 of them as English learners. It received $413 for each English learner — $522,429 a year. Just 44 students were redesignated as fluent in English that year.
In truth, English learners and most poor children fail because they are not taught English well.
Alice Callaghan is the founder and director of Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center for garment workers and their children.