Melanie Perez wishes she could have played the saxophone. Octavio Reyes would have liked to take a computer science class.
Both students at San Pedro High School say they can’t sign up for these electives because, at some point in their school careers, they were stuck having to take remedial classes for English learners – even though both speak English fluently and have performed reasonably well on English tests.
“I actually feel retarded when (the teacher) says, `What is this (word)?’ and it’s a carrot,” Octavio said. “It’s pointless. I already know it, and I don’t think it helps me.”
Their complaints highlight a wider problem that, although little known, could be among the state’s most pressing educational challenges: Students stuck for years in the state’s remedial programs for English learners are often denied the opportunity to take enriching electives or the more rigorous courses required for getting into college.
Related story: Trapped in ESL: Some students wind up in English-learner programs even though they only speak English
It’s a problem that has been attracting more attention of late, leading to a raft of reforms that some say could make California a leader in the field – which would be fitting, considering a third of the nation’s English learners attend California public schools.
But as is, the state is failing many of these students.
Low odds for success
Numbering 1.4 million, English learners make up nearly a quarter of all K-12 students in the state – and nearly 40 percent of all California’s kindergartners. One in four quits school – the worst dropout rate of any demographic group in California. Only 60 percent graduate high school within four years.
Several pieces of legislation addressing this mammoth bloc of at-risk students were signed in late September by Gov. Jerry Brown. All take effect Jan. 1.
One, authored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell, seeks to prevent English learners from languishing in the system for years by compelling the state Department of Education to reveal the number of “long-term English learners” at each school district.
Another, by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, will force the state to come up with more consistent guidelines for deeming kids fluent. The implication here is that many students are unnecessarily stuck in remedial classes when their command of the English language is sufficient.
A third bill, also by Padilla, takes school districts to task for banking state money earmarked for getting these students on track.
School officials chafe at some of these characterizations, in particular that last one, especially at a time when schools are suffering from historic shortages of state funding.
Meanwhile, advocates of English learners say large numbers of them – for whatever reason – get stuck in the system, and that, at some point, their very status as English learners seems to inhibit their chances for success.
“If kids haven’t been reclassified (as fluent) by fifth grade, they have pretty much been tracked, and are not going to be able to go to college,” said Oscar Cruz, the head of Families in Schools, a nonprofit advocate for parents of low-income and minority families. “They’re on a path where they’re just taking remedial classes.”
Lara’s AB 2193 would create a consistent definition for long-term English learners and force school districts to not only keep track of such students, but also students at risk of earning the distinction.
Studies show that some 60 percent of English learners in grades 6-12 are considered long term, meaning they’ve carried the label for at least six years.
Padilla’s SB 1108 – co-authored by Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton – aims to create a more consistent set of requirements for deeming students academically fluent. As is, the state provides minimum guidelines, but allows school districts to tack on additional stipulations, arguably creating more barriers to reclassification.
“The criteria are just all over the map,” Padilla said, adding that he would prefer to see districts err on the side of removing the label.
Padilla’s other bill, SB 754, is a transparency measure that seeks to pressure individual school districts out of the practice of stashing the extra money they receive to provide services for English learners. Specifically, it would compel them to prominently post online their budgets and carryovers in these accounts, as well as explain why the money hasn’t been spent.
School districts generally receive $300 to $500 a year in state dollars for every English learner they designate, but they don’t spend it all. (This amount doesn’t include the additional funds they receive from the federal government.)
In 2010-11, the state gave California’s school districts a total of $915 million for helping English learners and low-income students. Known as the “Economic Impact Aid” fund, it lumps the two allocations together. By year’s end, the school districts’ combined ending balance from this fund amounted to $382 million – or 42 percent of the annual apportionment.
The 2011 carryover for LAUSD alone was $61.5 million, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.
That money, Padilla said, “should be spent; it should not be hoarded.”
Octavio and Melanie
Octavio is a good example of a student who could be fluent by state standards, but isn’t due to an unique additional local requirement.
A senior at San Pedro High, Octavio still bears the “English learner” label even though he cleared the state-set hurdles for fluency. These include passage of an exam taken annually by English learners until they pass, and demonstrating a basic level of proficiency on standardized tests.
But the Los Angeles Unified School District also has another requirement for shedding the label: Students must maintain at least a C average in their English classes. That has been Octavio’s hang-up.
“It was mostly because I didn’t try,” said Octavio, who has been an English learner since emigrating from Mexico at age 10. “I would get bored.”
Other districts have their own tack-on requirements. The K-8 Hawthorne School District requires its English learners to pass a written exam. In Torrance, English learners must score higher on standardized English tests than what the state requires.
As for Melanie, who is a freshman at San Pedro High, she has been successfully reclassified as fluent but says the year and a half spent taking remedial English classes at Dana Middle School in San Pedro denied her the ability to take desired electives, such as band. While she was born in the United States, many other students were immigrants.
“There were times that I didn’t care to do my work,” she said. “I was like, `Why am I in this class if I know English?”‘
New master plan
Even as several pieces of English-learner legislation have become law statewide, LAUSD has its own new initiative.
The nation’s second-largest school system has more English learners than any other district – nearly 31 percent of its 650,000 students. Officials estimate that nearly 40 percent of those are considered long term, unable to attain proficiency after five years in a program.
LAUSD’s strategy for teaching English to these students is detailed in its 150-page master plan, which was overhauled last year after a federal civil rights investigation found that English learners weren’t getting the same quality education as other students in the district.
Under the new plan, the district is more closely monitoring the progress of its English learners, with tutoring and other forms of intervention available to those struggling with either language or academic lessons.
“The goal is to increase proficiency in elementary grades, before students get to middle and high school and get mired in the long-term category,” said Hilda Maldonado, director of LAUSD’s Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department.
“We’re using more of the district’s data system to be able to monitor the progress and achievement of our students.”
The district also wants to remove the roadblocks impeding students who can’t test out of the English-learner programs despite their obvious fluency. Beginning next year, Maldonado said, teachers will be assessing middle and high school students with the goal of getting students reclassified even if they can’t hit the academic benchmarks on report cards.
Statewide, there is an apparent disconnect between the number of English learners who demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests and the number of students who matriculate out of the English learner program.
In 2010-11, nearly 40 percent of California’s English learners made the grade in English on standardized tests, but only 11 percent were reclassified as fluent, according to the California Department of Education.
A South Bay district with a lower-than-average reclassification rate is the K-8 Hawthorne School District. Here, just 8 percent of English learners were deemed fluent in 2010-11, even though nearly 50 percent scored proficient or better on standardized English tests.
Hawthorne schools Superintendent Helen Morgan – whose schools are generally strong performers given their high rates of low-income families – makes no apologies for setting the bar high for reclassification.
“In our instance, the writing component is more of a hurdle, but we want to make sure they are good writers before we drop all the support,” she said.
Torrance Unified seems to do a better-than-average job of getting students out of the program in a timely fashion.
For instance, in 2010-11, the latest data available, while just 11 percent of English learners in California were reclassified as fluent, in Torrance the figure was 14.4 percent.
Kati Krumpe, the district’s director of state and federal programs, says reclassified students in Torrance tend to outperform many of their peers who were never in the English learner program.
“I think that shows that the program is working,” she said.
As for the 39-year-old Padilla, he himself was an English learner as an elementary school student in the Los Angeles Unified School District. That was before California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998, thereby ending mandatory bilingual education.
“My textbooks in first grade were 100 percent in Spanish,” he said.
He is the rare example of an English learner who thrived, eventually earning a mechanical engineering degree from MIT.
Taking a step back, Padilla says the crux of the problem is a lack of urgency on this topic.
“English learners are a segment of the population that continues to grow,” he said. “If the trend is on the way up, and the educational attainment level of English learners continues to stagnate, I think we have a perfect storm for a crisis. And many would say the crisis is already here.”