Struggling With English, From Kindergarten to High School Graduation

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Senior Deyri Rabadan has been in Oakland public schools since kindergarten, but has struggled to become proficient in English and to graduate. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

A few weeks before high school graduation, Oakland senior Deyri Rabadan still isn't sure if she'll get her diploma.

"Honestly, I have thought of dropping out before," says 17-year-old Deyri, a student at Coliseum College Prep Academy. "And that is because, I mean, I don’t really know my English really well."

Deyri is waiting on the results of her last California High School Exit Exam. She's taken it seven times. Each time before, she’s failed the English-language arts portion. And every year since kindergarten, she's had to retake the English proficiency test, too, because she still doesn't meet the standards to be considered fluent.

"It makes me feel really mad, angry, sad," says Deyri. "To be honest, I feel stupid, because I’m taking the same test over and over and over. It’s simple questions, but it's just that my reading comprehension, it’s not really good. And my essay portion, also. I know the format of writing an essay, but it's just that I don’t use a strong vocabulary."

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Deyri isn't a newcomer. She moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 2½ years old. And she’s been in public school here since kindergarten. In fact, almost three out of four English learners in California middle and high schools have been here for most of their school years. Yet English-language learners are less likely to graduate than almost any other group: less than two-thirds of them make it.

So what's going on? Well, for one, kids like Deyri are missing out on opportunities to practice English in an academic setting.

"I feel like if I speak up in class or I try to participate in class, other students are going to be like, ‘What is she talking about?' " says Deyri. She's felt like that for years.

Deyri Rabadan has been in school in Oakland since kindergarten, but has struggled to pass the English proficiency exam and the high school exit exam.
Deyri Rabadan has been in school in Oakland since kindergarten, but has struggled to pass the English proficiency exam and the high school exit exam. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Not only do kids like Deyri often lack the confidence to speak up; they're also frequently in schools with few fluent speakers of English, so they pick up mistakes from each other that are hard to shake off years down the road.

English learners are supposed to get 30 minutes of help in English-language development every day, but many don't.

Not knowing English well makes it harder to learn things like science and history. Some kids get frustrated and drop out. Others, like Deyri, keep trying but have big gaps in their learning. Meanwhile, they often think they're fluent in English, because they get along socially.

"You have students who for years haven’t been successful in school and don’t really know why. And no one else really knows why," explains Nina Portugal. She teaches a class designed especially for these "long-term English learners" at Castlemont High School in Oakland.

"It frustrated me a lot when I first came to Oakland," says Portugal.

Long-term English Learners in sixth through eighth grade at Coliseum College Prep Academy set goals to become proficient in the language. Teachers say it's empowering.
Long-term English learners in sixth through eighth grade at Coliseum College Prep Academy set goals to become proficient in the language. Teachers say it's empowering. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

"People would say, 'Oh, they're not an English learner.' And I would say, 'But they are! They're reading five, six grade levels below, they think in Spanish, and when you talk to them, they don’t know what was going on in your class.' And the teachers would be like, 'Oh! I guess I never realized.'"

Only recently did the state start realizing. Last school year, it started tracking kids in every school who have been English learners for more than six years.

In part that was because of momentum sparked by research published by Laurie Olsen of Californians Together. It was called "Reparable Harm" because Olsen believes strongly this is a problem that can be prevented.

"If a student has been in our schools for five, six, 10, 11 years, we certainly should have been able to get them to English proficiency and mastering the academic content," says Olsen. "It really starts right from the first day they enter school. Right from the start we should have them actively involved, engaged in rich language, falling in love with language. We should be developing their home language along with English! That’s where they have a knowledge base."

Teachers and districts around the state have come up with new approaches to turn things around for the kids who have already been in school for longer than six years and still aren't English-proficient.

A big part of Oakland Unified's strategy is to explain to students why they're struggling and what they need to work on. Teachers say it's empowering students to improve. Olsen agrees.

"That is just wonderfully powerful to students who have been confused year after year of, 'Why am I struggling?' Putting power in their hands, engaging them in charting their path, is one of the aspects that is making a difference in some districts," says Olsen.

Mariko White teaches long-term English learners at Coliseum College Prep Academy.
Mariko White teaches long-term English learners at Coliseum College Prep Academy. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

There's a class just for these students at Deyri Rabadan's sixth-through-12th grade school, Coliseum College Prep Academy, but it's only for middle schoolers.

One morning, two sixth-graders are timing each other to see how many words they can read in one minute. Another group is taking vocabulary quizzes on computers. And a group of three is digging deep into a passage from Anne Frank’s "Diary of a Young Girl" to help them stay up to speed as they study the book in their regular English class. Teacher Mariko White is going over a metaphor with them.

"So what is happening, is she literally seeing these clouds coming?" asks teacher Mariko White.

"No, they see the Nazis getting closer and closer," says one boy.

"In her mind she sees it," adds another.

"So how can we say that, in your mind?"

"She imagines ... "

White says using the text from their regular English class has made a big difference for kids to be able to understand concepts and participate in academic discussions.

"I’ve been in their classes and a kid will look at me and go, 'Ah! Oh yeah, we did this!' And they’ve been able to participate," says White.

The approach seems to be paying off: More than three times as many high school English learners in Oakland met the requirements this year to be reclassified as  English-proficient as in previous years.

This kind of class was never available for Deyri Rabadan.

But she just got some good news. On her seventh try, Deyri finally passed the high school exit exam. She's planning to go to college in the fall. The reading will be a challenge, she says, but it's one she wants to take on, because she wants to forge a path for her two younger sisters to follow.