San Diego Unified School District has changed its program for immigrant middle school and high school students who don’t speak English. The district says its new approach empowers them, but critics say it sets them up to fail.
For almost a decade, such students — many of them refugees — spent their first year in special classrooms the district called New Arrival Centers.
The students stayed with the same teacher most of the day, learning English and core subjects. They joined other students for less academic classes such as physical education or art.
Starting this school year though, the approach has changed. They are learning math, science and other core subjects in regular classes. A language “coach” goes with them to class to support them as well as their teachers.
Sandra Cephas, the director of the district’s office of language acquisition, says the new program’s purpose is to recognize the value of the knowledge that the students arrive with, even if they cannot yet convey that knowledge in English. The district, she said, worried about isolating them from the rest of the students.
“We don’t believe that just because they have a gap in language that they aren’t able to accomplish great things, because they can,” Cephas said. “That belief in them has to be coupled with the right support at the right time.”
Cephas said the new program will accelerate the students’ language acquisition and provide equal access to the curriculum.
“The goal,” she said, “is for the entire school to embrace these students.”
Teachers, parents and students have expressed concern over the changes, especially for newly arrived students from war-torn countries or refugee camps. Some had to leave school for long stretches. Others have never been to school and are not literate in their native languages.
Kris Larsen, who taught for the New Arrival Center at San Diego High School before retiring at the end of this past school year, said the teachers were not convinced that the changes were based on sound research.
“I get that they want to raise graduation rates,” Larsen said, but added, “It’s absolutely absurd to think pulling these supports” would achieve that goal.
The set-up of the New Arrival Centers enabled the district to offer smaller classes for newcomers to the country and other English learners, according to Debra Dougherty, who worked in the office of language acquisition before retiring this past school year. She said that was one of the reasons the school system was able to get federal funding for the program.
This year, however, many of the classes that these students attend are at or near capacity, though the language coaches are meant to help.
On a recent Thursday, 36 students — the maximum allowed in one class for the district — surrounded three long tables in Lotus Hang’s English language development class at Mann Middle School.
Posters with the names of colors, body parts and emotions lined the walls. The room filled with the hubbub of middle schoolers.
Nicole Rawson, language coach for the class, read the book “Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan” aloud. Students sat in pairs, sharing handouts. Hang projected a copy of the story on the overhead with notes written over some of the vocabulary — “bully,” for example, scribbled over “Taliban fighter.”
One student gave up on the reading and put his head on the table as students broke into pairs to discuss what they’d read so far.
The students — sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders — spend half the day with Rawson and Hang, learning a combination of reading comprehension, language skills and the basics of how to go to school, like taking notes.
They then go to grade-level math and science, and either Hang or Rawson accompanies them for language support. They round out the day with an elective such as art.
“Even I was skeptical at first,” Rawson said. “It seems chaotic maybe, but it’s really controlled chaos, and the kids are thriving.”
The principal at Mann, Allen Teng, was born in Seattle, where his first was language was Mandarin and he was educated as an English learner in elementary school.
“I sympathize with the challenges,” Teng said. “You have to catch up multiple years.”
He said he thinks the change comes from a good place, and that exposure to a variety of native English speakers in grade-level classes can help the students learn the language more quickly. “We want to give them exposure to other language models, but at the same time we don’t want to put them in a place where they sink,” he said.
According to Bill Oswald of the Global Action Resource Center, which focuses on refugees and civic engagement, one of the community’s main concerns is that the school district isn’t recognizing the difference between conversational English and academic English.
“The district is listening to their conversational English and saying they’re ready to go into a classroom, but research would say they’re not as ready as they seem,” Oswald said.
Cinthia Joselyne Vazquez, a former student of the New Arrival Center at San Diego High School, wrote a letter to the district this month. She recalled feeling lost on her first day of school.
“The only thing that made me feel better was the fact that I was not alone….” Vazquez wrote. “I have always wondered what I would have done without the newcomer program I was in and the answer always comes to be very simple — I would have dropped out of school.”
Kate Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.