When Jesus Torralba moved to Fresno from Mexico, he started second grade with the academic skills of sixth graders at his new elementary school.
Torralba, now 22, had been a good student at his private school in Mexico City. But he faced a huge challenge in Fresno – he didn’t speak English.
By the time Torralba reached high school, he had been labeled an English learner for seven years. He had no idea what that meant.
“I was lost,” he said.
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Educators say English learners get caught in a system that lacks the support they need to succeed. Research shows they are among the most likely to drop out of high school. In California, 65 percent of such students graduated last year, 15 percentage points below their peers. Many never make it to college, and those who do face low completion rates.
Nearly one in 10 students nationally is an English learner. In the central San Joaquin Valley, it’s one in four, the vast majority of them U.S. citizens.
Federal law requires school districts to teach these students equitably and establish programs to teach them English. In California, districts serving a majority of at-risk children, including English learners, receive additional government grants to improve services for them.
Most schools immerse students in English-only instruction, though research suggests bilingual programs – those that retain the student’s native language as an asset – yield better outcomes. And teaching methods vary between districts, making it difficult to paint a clear picture of what it’s like to be an English learner in the Valley.
They speak playground English, but they aren’t speaking, reading or writing academic English.
Maria Ceballos, Reading and Beyond
National studies show children with non-English-speaking parents particularly benefit from preschool, but many never go due to barriers including cost, transportation and lack of space. Once in K-12, English learners consistently lag behind their peers on yearly standardized tests. In high school, some are placed in special English and other core subject courses instead of courses that prepare them for college.
Some English learners never make it past that label. Many who do continue to feel unequipped linguistically.
“They speak playground English, but they aren’t speaking, reading or writing academic English,” said María Ceballos of the local education nonprofit Reading and Beyond. The organization helps students in Fresno become proficient in English and meet college entrance requirements.
Learning English long-term
In 2010, a study by the nonprofit Californians Together found that many students suffered because schools failed to monitor their progress, train teachers and provide appropriate language services and curriculum. Those students become stuck, unable to reach the English fluency needed for success in school and beyond.
In response, in 2012 California became the first state to pass a law that defined so-called long-term English learners and set criteria to identify those at risk of becoming such students. Experts say some districts have tackled the issue head-on, while others haven’t made it as much of a priority.
At Fresno Unified, students must pass state and local tests, plus receive teacher recommendation and parent consultation, before being considered proficient in English. Those who don’t pass within six years are considered long-term English learners.
During the 2010-11 school year, long-term English learners made up more than half of all English learners at the district. In the 2014-15 school year, it was 39.5 percent.
María Maldonado, assistant superintendent for English learner services, said the lower percentage is the result of an effort to keep kids from becoming designated as English learners in the first place. Fresno Unified focused on elementary grades to target English learners early, she said, by setting up intervention programs after school, training teachers about those students’ needs and starting a summer program for English language development.
Summer slide – the loss of academic skills during summer break – affects English learners profoundly.
California defines long-term English learners as students enrolled in U.S. schools for more than six years who have stayed at the same language proficiency level for at least two years and score below basic on the English language arts test.
Rudy González, a teacher on special assignment in the English learner department, said the district starts identifying long-term English learners by fourth grade. It’s important that students become proficient in English early on, he said, because the state test becomes more difficult through the grade levels. Plus, teachers can’t give as much individualized attention to students in middle and high schools.
“Instead of having, you know, 30 students, you’re having seven classes with 30 students per class,” he said. “So, what attention can you give these kids?”
District leaders have talked about developing a summer program for middle school English learners. But students in high school need the most immediate help.
Rosenda Luna, 16, is a sophomore at Roosevelt High School in southeast Fresno. Though born in Kentucky, she grew up speaking Mixteco, the indigenous language of her Mexican parents.
Luna has been an English learner at Fresno Unified since she started kindergarten. Because most other English learners speak Spanish, she also became conversational in Spanish to better communicate with her friends.
California English Language Development Test (CELDT) scores say Luna is a beginner in reading and intermediate in writing, listening and speaking. She considers English her best language.
Luna takes a mainstream English language arts class, sometimes using a dictionary to complete school work. She has a 4.0 GPA and is on track to finish the college entrance requirements. But when it comes to taking the CELDT – with no dictionary or teacher help – she freezes.
Luna wants to be the first person in her family to go to college. She wants to become a police officer, partly because her language skills would allow her to help people in her own community. But if she can’t pass the state test, she’s not sure her language proficiency will get her into a four-year university right away.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” she said.
Passing the tests
With the onset of Common Core State Standards, the state discontinued the California Standards Test (CST), which included an English language arts assessment. Students took that test and the CELDT once a year and needed to pass both to be redesignated as proficient in English. A new test is scheduled to replace the CELDT in 2016.
Last school year, in place of the CST, the California Department of Education gave districts guidelines to implement their own tests. Fresno Unified and other districts decided to administer their replacement tests multiple times a year.
That’s important, Maldonado said, because there has been a lag between the test and when students were redesignated as English proficient. They take the CELDT every September, but teachers don’t get the results until late January. Results of the CST, administered in late April and early May, didn’t reach teachers until August or September.
Teachers weren’t able to identify in real time what students lacked, giving them little ability to help students become redesignated. The CELDT still happens only once a year, but teachers can now use the new local assessment results, which come three times a year, to help guide instruction.
“It gives them an opportunity to instruct differently before the next benchmark,” Maldonado said. “They are able to take action.”
Also, for the first time, last school year Fresno Unified began redesignating English learners in first and second grades, which other districts have always done in those grades. Fresno redesignated 920 such students.
While redesignation is not required for graduation, failing to score high enough on the tests can exclude English learners from courses that would get them into college. The “A-G” college entrance requirements utilized by California State University and University of California are four years of college prep English, three of math, two of history, two of science, two of foreign language, one of arts and one of an elective.
Most Fresno Unified high school students receive language acquisition support within mainstream classes that count toward the A-G. Those who have been at U.S. schools for fewer than three years also take an English language development class instead of an elective.
Not all school districts use the same strategy. Some, like Central Unified in Fresno County, use CELDT scores to place students in different programs. Beginner English learners attend targeted language development classes that don’t count toward high school graduation and gradually pick up mainstream classes as their scores improve.
At Hanford Joint Union High School District in Kings County, beginner to intermediate English learners take an English class that doesn’t count toward the A-G, plus English development. All other core subject classes (math, science and history) are mainstreamed. Intermediate to advanced students take mainstream A-G English and English development.
Among Hanford’s 370 English learners this school year, 89 percent are designated long-term.
89.5 The percentage of long-term English learners at Hanford Joint-Union High School District
Janice Ede, director of special programs, said the district uses a seven-period day, so students have more room in their schedules for the support class. But if Luna, the 4.0 GPA Fresno Unified student with low CELDT scores, lived in Hanford, she could be shut out from the college prep English class she is clearly equipped for.
Nearby Lemoore Union High School District uses a similar strategy, except advanced students don’t take a support class. Principal Rodney Brumit said he thinks students eventually just burn out trying to become redesignated as proficient in English.
“There needs to be a different way to evaluate the kids,” he said.
Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together (the organization that published the study on long-term English learners), said students need to know early on what the tests mean and what they should do to be redesignated.
“If we just give them their score every year on CELDT, it’s a disincentive for them and they feel deflated,” she said. “If they become part of charting their academic journey, they have a whole other perspective.”
Getting to college
Torralba, the 22-year-old from Mexico City, dreamed of going straight to a four-year university and becoming a pediatrician. In ninth grade, he was redesignated as officially fluent in English. But he still reads and writes better in Spanish.
For the next two years, Torralba worked hard and improved his grades to mostly As and Bs. Then in 11th grade, his girlfriend, Alma Jacobo, now 23, got pregnant with their first child. Torralba’s grades tanked.
He said that if he had felt more confident in English, he would have pushed to get into Fresno State. But he knew he needed to quickly provide for his growing family – they now have three daughters. So after graduation four years ago, he got a job working in construction while paying his way through Fresno City College. He’s still a few classes shy of a degree.
Ceballos, of Reading and Beyond, said English learners like Torralba who attend community college are more likely to end up in remedial courses.
“If the plan is two years, it might end up being three or four,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to take those if you got the right preparation in high school.”
California State University and the University of California test high school students to ensure they are ready for college-level English and math. Those who aren’t enroll in pass/fail remedial summer courses designed to get them up to speed.
In 2007, Virginia Crisco, who coordinates the first-year writing program at Fresno State, conducted two surveys of more than 2,000 freshmen students’ primary languages. She found that 46 percent of students speak languages other than English. Eight percent listed Spanish as their primary language, while 18 percent said they speak Spanish and English.
Many students who meet the class and grade requirements for college have test results showing they are unprepared for college-level work. One in three freshmen entering the CSU system in 2012 failed the math test, and about the same proportion failed the English test. At Fresno State last year, 40 percent of freshmen were unprepared for math, while nearly half were unprepared for English.
Nearly half of all freshmen at Fresno State last year were unprepared for college-level English.
Spiegel-Coleman of Californians Together said the problem for English learners is that there has not been a statewide or countywide effort to mount K-12 programs that really work. It’s a labor-intensive effort and sometimes requires outside expertise.
State Schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s Blueprint for Great Schools, revised in July, calls for the state to set standards that support English learners and biliteracy. It also calls for the establishment of an English learning master plan.
Spiegel-Coleman said beginner English learners need targeted language development through programs that support and enhance their primary language. And she said all English learners should be in grade-level academic classes that count toward their high school graduation and entrance to college while addressing their language needs.
Short of that, she said, such students will continue struggling to finish high school and graduate unequipped for college.
Torralba can’t get his mind off becoming a pediatrician. Sometimes he wishes he could have continued going to school in Mexico.
“My future would be somewhere else,” he said.
Still, Torralba considers himself lucky. Most of his friends graduated as English learners. They now work in the fields.