Feb. 9, 2013
Actually, she knew one phrase — “thank you” — as well as the 26 letters of the alphabet. But other than that, the Arabic speaker was surrounded by thousands of students with whom she couldn’t communicate.
“It’s like you’re just in your own world,” she said of those first few months. “You cannot understand anything.”
Late last month, the high school senior celebrated a milestone: She accepted a certificate showing that she has officially met the requirements to exit the school’s program for students who are still learning English. Put simply, she is now considered fluent.
Meanwhile, Stephanie, another senior at San Pedro High, remains stuck in the school’s remedial programs for English learners, even though she was born in the United States, and has been labeled an English learner since kindergarten. (The Daily Breeze is withholding her last name of the Spanish speaker at the request of her teacher.)
The difference between Eevan and Stephanie underscores a little-known paradox that has long been at play at San Pedro High and likely beyond: Foreign-born students who come to America as teenagers knowing nary a word of English consistently test out of the English-learner program before high school students who have been stuck in the program since kindergarten. In fact, the comparison isn’t even close.
In the last three years at San Pedro High, a full 100 percent of the foreign-born English learners — about 10 pupils a year — have exited the program before graduation, compared to just 15 percent of their U.S.-born peers, said Laura Rodriguez, the school’s English Language Development coordinator.
Although broader statistics on the distinction between native- and foreign-born English-learners are scarce – neither the California Department of Education nor the Los Angeles Unified School District keep such tallies – the issue is worth examining.
The phenomenon at San Pedro High jibes with a nationwide study released this fall by John Hopkins University concluding that immigrant children tend to academically outperform their second- and third-generation native-born peers.
The trend was on display on Jan. 30, during a little-after-school ceremony at San Pedro High for students who have met all the requirements for being redesignated as fluent. Eevan was among 11 students so awarded. Eight of them were like her in that they had recently emigrated from other countries. Amazingly, this crew represented as many countries as students: El Salvador, Colombia, Tanzania, China, Peru, Ukrania, Iran and, of course, Iraq. Just three of the students were born in the United States.
The eight students getting redesignated were among 35 foreign-born English-learners at the school. The three U.S.– born students — known in education parlance as “long-term English learners” — came from a pool of 136. Sixteen of those U.S.-born students are seniors and in acute danger of not achieving fluency before graduation.
Karla Glover is the teacher of the foreign-born students, whose program is known as English as a Second Language.
“To see my students reclassify when they are in ESL when there is 136 that cannot do it in 9 to 12 years … it’s a lot of honor for me,” she said at the ceremony.
Comparing the success rate of foreign-born English-learners with their U.S.-born peers may offer insight into how to tackle one of the state’s most pressing educational problems. Making up nearly a quarter of all of California’s K-12 students, English learners have the worst high school dropout rate of any demographic group in the state.
Jill Aguilar, an associate professor of education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, believes the paradox demonstrates an oft-overlooked reality: Second-generation U.S. students whose parents speak another language at home often fail to gain a mastery of their supposed native tongue.
That is, many students who enter kindergarten speaking primarily, say, Spanish never really learn to read in Spanish, or even attain oral proficiency. This means they’re trying to learn a new language even as they are learning how to read.
“It delays their progress in Spanish and it delays their progress in English at the same time,” she said. “It ends up almost like a created learning disability.”
By comparison, students who arrive to the United States from other countries as a teenagers have often mastered their own native language.
“All they are doing is replacing words in their own language with English – it’s a vocabulary problem, really,” she said.
Aguilar believes bi-lingual education is the answer; she calls the 1998 decision by California voters to eliminate it a tragedy.
Rodriguez — the ELD coordinator at San Pedro High — disagrees. She believes the crux of the problem has more to do with motivation.
“The foreign-born students are more motivated because they are here for a better life,” she said. “Whereas the ones who have been here don’t see that. They feel more entitled.”
Eevan Noah certainly had good reason to appreciate her lot in life when she arrived at San Pedro High with her two siblings. Their Christian family was driven out of Iraq by Islamic militants irate that their father worked as a truck driver delivering goods to U.S. military forces, said Eevan’s older sister, Evett, who attended the Jan. 30 event to snap a few pictures of her sister.
“They gave us a paper saying you betrayed the country, and if you don’t get out of this country, we’re going to kill all of your kids,” Evett said. “The next day we got out of the country.”
Like Eevan, Evett went through the school’s ESL program, as did their brother, Andro. All three siblings are or were honor students at San Pedro High.