Valley Voices

Ruben Castillo: Early exposure to English language essential for EL students

Within Fresno County, there are dual communities. There are pockets where American-born children of one or both non-English-speaking parents struggle with their ability to acquire a vocabulary comparable to their peers. This is not because non-English speaking parents don’t wish for their children to succeed. Nor is it because they don’t value living in the United States. These parents have the same dreams as all of us do for their children to grow up safe, healthy, happy and be good citizens with the opportunity for better lives.

In spite of these desires, their children cannot acquire proficient language skills before entering kindergarten. Within 30 days of starting school, they are identified and tracked as English learners or EL students. A child who starts school behind is more likely to stay behind. This is especially true for EL students, many of whom never recover and become long-term EL students all the way into high school. Their school experience is altered, and their opportunity to be reclassified out of EL is slim.

These challenges are the same ones I faced more than 40 years ago as a child of immigrant parents from northern Mexico. Although hard workers to their bones, following the crops as migrant laborers, my parents had very little education. My father was only able to attend school up to third grade in Mexico, because he had to work. My mother went to school one day before the schoolhouse burned down and was never rebuilt. They were from poor and humble beginnings.

Many of our EL students are the products of a generation of the same beginnings. Although most of their parents are citizens or resident aliens, they retain their native language and culture at home. And there is an abundance of native languages — at least 59 — in California schools, including Fresno County. Of the almost 200,000 students in Fresno County, more than 22% are English learners.

Children enter kindergarten as EL primarily for two reasons: The lack of significant early exposure to the English language and inadequate or no preschool. Young EL students have 50% fewer words in their vocabulary compared to traditional students. Without the words, children cannot understand basic terms. It’s like painting only in gray in a world full of color.

In rural communities, it is especially difficult for small school districts to provide preschools, because there are not enough children to financially sustain them. Instead, these early EL students are watched by Grandma or a neighbor because families do not have access to nor can they afford private preschool.

Although Grandma’s care may be loving, it does not expose the child to the building blocks of social and English-language development.

Despite the barriers experienced by EL students, there are solutions. I believe accessible, high-quality preschool for all children must be available. Children who participate in high-quality preschool score higher on third-grade reading exams, which has a strong correlation to graduating from high school and finding employment.

EL students must also have access to enriching programs to grow in confidence and boost self-esteem. Over the summer months, the Fresno County Office of Education’s Migrant Education Program exposes more than 3,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12 to free, robust summer-learning opportunities at Fresno State, Orange Center Elementary School and Scout Island.

Students learn about science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, as well as robotics, health and nutrition and character.

Students at the Scout Island Writer’s Camp participate in outdoor education, with their classroom being the San Joaquin River. Many of these students have never put their hands in the cool current of a river, let alone be asked to write about it. EL and migrant students who can’t attend a regional program receive home visits and are given a backpack with English language arts and math activities, as well as school supplies and books.

There are lesson plans for parents in the backpacks, so they can actively help their children learn. When parents are involved in a child’s education, the probability of success soars.

My father gave my seven siblings and me a choice as high school graduation neared: Join me in the field or go to college. Not just any college. “Fresno State,” he said. Over the years, I’ve wondered how a man with no education knew the value of it. Most of my brothers became engineers. One of my sisters and I went into education. School wasn’t easy for me, a child with limited English and an overwhelming stutter. I faltered, but I overcame.

English Learner students of Fresno County are the same as traditional students, children who want to learn, laugh and be loved. With access to early learning opportunities and enrichment programs, they can grow beyond a classification into invaluable contributors to the future of our community.

Ruben Castillo is an administrator for the Migrant Education Program, Fresno County Office of Education.