Trapped in ESL: Some students wind up in English-learner programs even though they only speak English
Nov. 24, 2012
Julian Ruiz is an English speaker who doesn’t know a word of Spanish or any other foreign language.
Yet when the 7-year-old entered kindergarten in Torrance three years ago, he was classified as an English learner – a student not fluent in English.
This shunted him into a category that his mother, Millie Ruiz, says he shouldn’t be in, and triggered a dispute with the school’s administration.
Ruiz says her son is trapped in the school district’s English Language Development program, giving him a label he doesn’t deserve.
“There comes a point where we need to introduce some common sense into the whole scheme of things,” Ruiz said.
Related story: California’s English language learners getting stuck in schools’ remedial programs
In California, about 23 percent of K-12 students are English learners. Some believe the number is too high.
A 2011 UC Berkeley study concluded that California districts are misidentifying large numbers of kindergarten students as English learners, in part because the test that determines whether they deserve the label is too difficult.
The result: Scarce resources earmarked for the purpose of helping nonfluent students are being spent inefficiently.
“There is that unfortunate opportunity for these kids to be identified as English-language learners and be locked into a program that’s not appropriate for them. I guess the criteria needs to be changed,” said Gil Navarro, a member of the San Bernardino County school board.
Some English-learner advocates see it differently.
Dan Fichtner, president of a nonprofit support group for teachers of English learners, said it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“We believe that it is better to err on the side of being conservative than to make a mistake and lose those first formative years,” Fichtner said.
As for Julian – a second-grader because he was held back in kindergarten – he must keep the designation until at least third grade, like all students in the program.
In California, it all begins with a language survey, filled out by every parent sending a child to kindergarten at a public school. It includes four questions:
* What language did the student use when first learning to speak?
* What language does the student use most frequently at home?
* What language does the parent speak when talking with the student?
* What language is most often spoken by adults in the home?
Ruiz answered the first three questions with “English.” But her fourth answer – “English/Spanish” – triggered the language test requirement.
Like about 90 percent of state kindergartners who take the test, Julian failed to score high enough to avoid the English learner label.
Jose Collazo, 22, of Pomona came to the United States with his family when he was little more than a year old. He remained in ESL classes throughout elementary and high school in Pomona Unified.
Collazo took the English-fluency exam four times, and although he was under the impression he had passed, he was never taken out of the ESL program.
That became a problem in high school, he said.
“I didn’t understand why my other friends were taking college prep and I didn’t,” Collazo said.
After speaking to a guidance counselor, he was able to take college preparation classes, but was still required to take ESL courses.As a result, Collazo said, he was unable to take some of the college preparation classes he needed.
In the summer of 2011, Ruiz decided – after two years in the program – she didn’t want to participate any longer. She refused to take time off work to bring her son to the district office to take his mandatory annual California English Language Development Test.
The school sent her a letter that Ruiz took as a threat. It said, in all caps: “Please note that your child will not be put on a class list in September if he/she does not complete this testing process prior to school starting in the fall.”
Ruiz did not have him tested that summer. That fall, the school pulled Julian out of class to take the assessment.
The results came back a few months later: “No change for this school year.”
Staff writers Rebecca Kimitch and Beau Yarbrough contributed to this report.