On the first day of the semester, Sylmar High math teacher Cesar Fuentes wasted no time: "Ven, tomen una computadora," he said. "Go grab a laptop."
In minutes, the students flipped open the Apple computers, the lights went down and, like a digital textbook, the geometry curriculum popped onto the white board — every word written in Spanish.
At Sylmar and three other high schools in Southern California, instructors are running some of the state's only rigorous bilingual math and science classes using online curriculum from Mexico. The idea: to get more Latino students to take and pass the courses they need to go to college.
"These are the kids that can do it if we just offer them something," said Patricia Gandara, a professor of education at UCLA.
Bilingual classrooms are rare in California. A voter-approved measure on bilingual education, Proposition 227, requires classes to be taught exclusively in English. But several provisions within the law, including one for older children, allow instruction in a student's primary language.
Still, only about 1% of high school students received primary-language instruction last school year, according to the state Department of Education.
Project SOL (Secondary Online Learning) is a collaborative effort between Gandara, the University of California system and the Mexican Colegio de Bachilleres, which developed the digital math and science curriculum.
The program began at four high schools in 2008 with $1.2 million in grants. Besides Sylmar, the other schools involved are Franklin in East Los Angeles, Brawley Union in Imperial County and Chula Vista in San Diego County. So far, nearly 500 students have enrolled in at least one of seven bilingual courses. The program accounts for about 18% of all high school students in the state learning in a primary language.
Though more than half of California's schoolchildren are Latino, Gandara said research shows that only about 13% of them nationwide will earn a bachelor's degree.
"We want to be the same as the other students," said Sylmar senior Karla Ibarra, 18. "Even better than the other students — to show them that we can do it."
Researchers say rigorous math and science courses are seldom available to students learning English, even though such courses are required for admission to four-year universities.
"What do you do when all of those positions that have been filled by college graduates empty out, and you have, in California, a majority Latino population that doesn't get degrees or finish college?" Gandara said. "You've got a mess."
Studies suggest that students with limited English can handle rigorous college-prep courses if they are offered in the students' primary language.
Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, the Mexican consul general in Sacramento, is optimistic about Project SOL. He said he hopes that forthcoming data will boost the prestige of Mexican educational initiatives, and that when results become available, Mexican officials will work to "raise the visibility of the program."
"Mexico and the United States must collaborate in educating these kids, and we want to step up, we want to do our share," he said. "Fortunately, we found a partner who is willing to work with us and measure the quality of what we are doing."
But Ron Unz, who chaired the English for Children group that passed Proposition 227, questioned Project SOL's long-term benefits to students.
"The question is, what happens when [students] go on to the next class, go to college or get a job? At some point, they're going to have to learn English," he said. "At 15 years old, it's hard, but every year that goes by, it's harder."
Gandara said it has been difficult to gather comparative data for Project SOL because there are so few students with similar demographics who are enrolled in rigorous math and science courses. A preliminary survey of five California school districts with large proportions of Spanish-speaking students — Pasadena, Pomona, Sacramento, Fresno and Long Beach — showed that none offered the bilingual courses that Project SOL provides.
Thus far, about 62% of students have passed their SOL classes. A small study that compared an Algebra II class of limited-English-speaking students with the SOL class found that the students in the bilingual class had a 10% to 15% higher pass rate. When compared with the regular Algebra II classes, however, Project SOL students had about a 10% lower pass rate.
Fuentes teaches the Algebra II, Geometry and Algebra I bilingual classes at Sylmar, and as a former limited-English speaker who emigrated from El Salvador, he offered a ringing endorsement of the program.
"I remember being scared and going home and crying," Fuentes said. "I'm sure that is how some of these kids feel. Now that they're here, we need to try to make their path a little easier."
Ibarra and her classmate Leonor Tovar said they used to feel just as their teacher described. When she entered a U.S. high school, Ibarra said that she didn't know anybody and that the isolation "makes you feel bad — like this is not your place."
But Tovar, 19, said that Project SOL made it easier to make friends. In class, she said the students speak the same language and feel safer sharing their thoughts. The school has set up a club for SOL students to socialize. And many times, Tovar said, the students help each other.
"Not just in the classes," she said.
"With your goals, too," Ibarra said, "and with your dreams."