The Proficiency Grind

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Feb 18 16:10:26 UTC 2006

>>From the San Bernardino County Sun
Article Display Date: 2/18/2006 12:00 AM

The proficiency grind
Learning a new language - English
Selicia Kennedy-Ross, Staff Writer

The first language Eli Padilla spoke was Spanish. Today, the third-grader
says his English is better than his Spanish, which he now speaks only at
home.  "I spoke Spanish when I was little," said Eli, 9. "But now I'm
around more people who speak English." A student at Myers Elementary
School in Rialto, Eli sometimes struggles with his studies, especially
homework. His parents don't speak English so they can't help him and he
usually ends up asking his older sister. Eli is one of the 84,619 students
learning English in San Bernardino County schools who face the daily
obstacles that come with learning a new language.

Understanding what the teacher is saying is difficult enough. Making
friends, taking tests and getting help with homework is even more
difficult. Every year, students like Eli, known as English learners, or
EL, are given the California English Language Development Test, which
measures how well they read, write, speak and listen in English. Nearly
half of the county's students learning English were familiar enough with
the language during the 2005-06 school year to qualify as proficient,
according to the state Department of Education.

The term "proficient" means the student has a strong grasp on the language
but is not yet fluent enough to make a full transition out of the EL
program. To leave, a student must show fluency and perform well on
standardized tests and parent-teacher evaluations. The number of EL
students who were proficient countywide increased by 1 percent last year
to 48 percent, but overall, the county has made major strides in its EL
programs. Proficiency in English learners has grown from 26 percent to 48
percent within the last five years, county school officials say. Still, EL
students locally and statewide continue to lag behind English-speaking
students in standardized testing and in meeting federal requirements. Most
schools in poorer areas with a high minority population tend to fare the
worst on the Academic Performance Index, which is based on standardized
test scores.

Federal law requires standardized tests like the California Standards Test
be given in English, which is unfair to students who are not only trying
to master the test material but a foreign language as well, said Ceci
Pinones, an EL instructional aide who administers the CELDT test at Myers
Elementary in Rialto. As a result, EL students often do poorly on the
tests. "It's not that they don't have the answers," Pinones said of the
English learners. "It's that they have a language barrier." Studies by
researcher Katherine Lindholm-Leary show that students fluent in two
languages frequently out-perform students fluent in only one.

But the benefits of being bilingual are not seen until later, Aguila said.
"Sometimes the only thing holding them back is language," she said. "It
just takes time to learn English. After about five years, that's when you
see the results." But Myers Elementary is a stark contrast to the norm.
Nearly one-third of its students are English learners, and the school has
seen a 247-point gain in its API score in the past five years, bringing it
to 731. Myers has also met all of its federal mandates, setting it apart
from most schools, which generally don't meet those benchmarks because not
enough of their EL students participate or score well in state testing.

Mariano Delapaz, a fifth-grader at Myers, recalled how difficult it was
for him to learn English. And how lonely. At first, the 10-year-old said,
he couldn't understand what the teacher or the other children were saying.
He said spending time with his classmates on the playground eventually
helped him learn English. "I'd hear the way they would talk to each other
in English," Mariano said.  "I listened." But conversational English is
not academic English, something he is reminded of when he takes tests.

"Sometimes there are some words I don't understand words I've never heard
of," Mariano said. Math is easier because "it doesn't have words," he
said. "If you do multiplications in English or in Spanish it comes out the
same." Statewide, less than half of California's 1.5 million EL students
ranked in the top two levels of proficiency advanced and early advanced,
meaning they could be fluent enough to leave the program. California
continues to have the greatest number of English learners compared to
other states, said Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public
instruction. About 65 percent of the state's English-learner population is
in Southern California.

A new six-county initiative called Pursuing Regional Opportunities for
Mentoring Innovation and Success for English learners, or PROMISE, might
be the key to helping these students achieve more than ever before. The
partnership between the Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino,
San Diego and Ventura county offices of education will design a customized
program for EL students in 15 schools. The six counties created the
partnership after the superintendents realized their counties shared
similarities in English-learner populations and issues, said Jan
Gustafson, director of the PROMISE Initiative.

"We saw pockets creative ways and successful programs here and there but
what we didn't see was a way to address the needs countywide," Gustafson
said. The CELDT scores released this week reflect an increase in the E
nglish-learner population statewide, Gustafson said. Less than a year ago,
78,639 students in San Bernardino County, or roughly 18 percent, were
considered English learners. Today, that number has jumped to 84,619, or
roughly 20 percent, according to the most recent numbers from the
California Department of Education.

San Bernardino City Unified School District will test its PROMISE plan at
Lytle Creek Elementary School, the school's state preschool program and at
Arrowview Middle School. In the San Bernardino district, parents can
choose from four different styles of English instruction for students from
kindergarten to third grade. In the dual-immersion program, students learn
two languages at once usually Spanish and English. In structured
English-immersion classes, teachers use special techniques designed to
develop fluency in English. Under a parental waiver, English learners may
also take mainstream classes where they are taught in English but receive
additional learning support or tutoring.

Alternative bilingual education, which requires a waiver from parents,
allows students to be taught in their native tongue and gradually acquire
English-speaking skills. In 1998, nearly one-third of classrooms in
California were bilingual. Today, 8 percent are. "With the passage of
Prop. 227, we had a drop in the number of districts that have transitional
bilingual and dual-immersion classes," said Veronica Aguila, manager of
the state Education Department's Language Policy and Leadership Office.
"It's not really the model you use that makes a difference," Aguila said.
"It's whether or not you have effective practices, trained teachers,
instruction, leadership."

Cali Olsen, deputy superintendent of instruction for Fontana Unified, said
the district has used some highly successful techniques in the past year
such as "targeted instruction," which groups students by their ability.
This ensures that advanced students or those who might need help can be
taught at a pace that suits their needs, Olsen said. Mary Beth Barron, a
fifth-grade teacher at Hemlock Elementary in Fontana, said the biggest
struggle English learners must overcome is shyness, a situation where
grouping can be helpful.

"Sometimes they are too shy to practice their oral skills in front of
other students, especially when they realize they struggle a bit," Barron
said. "But for 25 minutes a day, it gives them an opportunity to practice
their oral language with others who are at the same level." Grouping has
made the biggest difference for her students, she said. "They seem more
relaxed," Barron said. "They are not afraid to speak out.  I would never
want to go back to anything else."

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