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For English Language Learners Everything Is an Uphill Battle

EGP News, News Report, Irantzu Pujadas Posted: May 30, 2008

Editor's Note: Irantzu Pujadas, a reporter with EGP News in Los Angeles, talked to students about the challenges of going to school without knowing English. This story was supported through a New America Media education fellowship program.

Not to be fluent in English is a disadvantage, says Nalliber Ruiz, a 17-year-old Bell Gardens High School student from Colombia. But at the same time, it is a challenge for me [to learn].

Ruiz came to the U.S as a teenager. She says she was surprised to find most of her teachers spoke Spanish, which made it easier for her to adapt to the local school system. But, she adds, the results have been a little disappointing.

I wanted to speak more English because I wanted to learn it, she says. I speak Spanish at home, with my friends, or when I watch the TV novelas (Spanish language soap-operas).

In the Montebello Unified School District, which includes Bell Gardens High School, 93.4 percent of the students are Latino. At Bell Gardens High, over 90 percent of the student body is Latino, says Mario Avila, the schools English Learner facilitator.

Seventy percent of all kindergarteners and 39 percent of all high school students attending MUSD schools are English Learners, reports the school district. Overall, 36.8 percent of the Districts students are classified as English Learners.

Most of the younger students are reclassified, meaning they are placed in all English classes, by grade 5, says Debbie De La Torre, MUSDs English Learner Program Director. English Learners have always been the focus of our efforts, says De La Torre.

The Districts demographics have changed, and thats why positions like the one she holds have been created, explains De La Torre. What we do in our program is help teachers develop professionally, so that they can help students access advance placement classes, she told EGP.

MUSDs objective is to make sure students graduate with the skills and classes needed to gain admission to college, says De La Torre.

MUSD recently adopted the A-G curriculum, classes required to enter college, so that all students, including English Learners, have the opportunity to take the courses.

Its a great idea, says Bell Garden Highs Avila. We are already planning for it, he said, adding that while the number of high school students overall is dropping, the percentage of students who are English Learners is increasing.

Many school districts across the state are struggling with identifying the right time to move students from English Learner classrooms to classes where only English is spoken. While most districts to some extent use state issued tests as markers of ability, few rely solely on those tests to determine when a student is ready to be reclassified.

At MUSD, reclassification of English Learners is determined by the California Department of Education, and is done through the CELDT examination or California English Language Development Test. The exam evaluates oral expression, listening comprehension, reading and writing. In order to be reclassified, the student needs to score a 4 or 5 on the tests 1-5 scale.

So far, results in the District have been disappointing; Of the 10,626 MUSD students who took the test during the 2007-08 academic year, from the beginning level to advanced, only 20 percent have successfully passed it, according to the available data.

Some students have to take the test three times in one year, says Avila, pointing at the level of difficulty most English Learners face in the CELDT examination.

For English Learners, everything is an uphill battle, says Avila. Theyre not only learning another language, but they are also learning another system and another culture and that can be very frustrating for them.

Bell Gardens High School student Selma Palos, 18, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 14, says her biggest challenge was understanding the educational system.
It was very different, a lot different than in Mexico, she said.

Here you dont have as many classes, I would like to see more classes offered to English Learners, she says. My level of English doesnt allow me to take the courses that I want to take, she says referring to the A-G courses.

Palos wants to attend college and believes that a big part of a students academic success lies with the skills and attitudes of the teachers. A lot depends on your teacher, she said with a smile.

Palos and Ruiz say they dont have a negative view of their situation, rather, they are realistic: I really admire the students who take advanced placement courses, Ruiz says. I took an advanced class last year, but even though I could understand the concept I failed the exam because there were so many words I didnt understand, she says.

Avila told EGP that parent participation is important, adding that it makes a difference when parents have a dialogue with their children regarding social, political or economic issues in their native Spanish.

Talk to your kids about serious issues, help them build critical thinking skills, says Avila To learn English with good critical thinking is a lot easier, he says.

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