The Luque siblings all started school as English-language learners. Jeremy Raff/KQED
The Luque siblings all started school as English-language learners. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

In California Schools, Thousands of English Language Learners Getting Stuck

In California Schools, Thousands of English Language Learners Getting Stuck

Veronica and Daniel Luque began their romance in the fields of Sinaloa, Mexico. Veronica spotted this good-looking guy who was working with her at a produce processing center.

"He seemed like he had big dreams and a lot of goals for himself. I really liked that," says Mrs. Luque in Spanish.

After marrying, the couple had a baby girl named Lidia, whose arrival got them thinking about the future. They knew their home state in Mexico was known for two things: agriculture and drugs.  Neither parent had made it through high school.  So it really didn't take long to decide to try and bring Lidia to the United States.

"I think my kids will have a better future here, because education here is at the forefront," says Mrs. Luque. "The government wants all our kids to be educated. No matter the color of your skin, everybody gets the same education."

Fast forward 15 years and the Luques now have five children and live in San Jose. The house is boisterous, full of the sounds of little boys playing and laughing, and older boys playing video games.

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Lidia is the only girl.  She's now 16 and a junior in high school. She's a model student and an avid singer, with plans to go to college.

Lidia Luque playing with seven-year-old brother Bryan.
Lidia Luque playing with seven-year-old brother Bryan. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

"I’m thinking of going into therapy, musical therapy, or keep going with my music studies to have a music major," she says.

It’s taken years, but Lidia’s finally confident in her English. Her parents still don’t speak it well, but they’ve made it a priority for their kids, who all attend San Jose public schools.  But only Lidia knows English well enough to be considered academically fluent.

It wasn't always that way. Lidia started kindergarten terrified to speak English.

"I always had my doubts," says Lidia. "Like what if they hear my accent? When I was younger I wouldn’t say yellow, I would say jello. And it would always scare me that they would make fun of me for the way I was talking."

Lidia's also truly bilingual; her Spanish is fluent, too.

"There’s moments where I feel like I know more Spanish than English, or more English than Spanish. It’s like back and forth. A ping pong match," she says.

Ever since Lidia started school in California, she's had to take the state's English proficiency tests, even in kindergarten.

Now that she's mastered English, Lidia Luque is doing well in school.
Now that she's mastered English, Lidia Luque is doing well in school. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Now that she's fluent, she is more likely to graduate and go to college.  Lidia herself actually thinks it's partly luck.  When she was in third and fourth grade, she finally got a teacher who really focused on her language acquisition.

"And it was the most sentimental day of my life, the day I was leaving, because she was the best teacher I could ask for," remembers Lidia. "She helped me understand everything more. She would always ask me if I could stay after class so she could help me more with my English."

Struggling With English

The help she got is one reason why Lidia's really motivated to try and help her little brothers do their English homework. They were all born here -- Jose Daniel in eighth grade, Angel in fifth, Bryan in first, and Valentin in kindergarten.

Jose Daniel and Angel have been in public schools in San Jose since kindergarten, but like hundreds of thousands of students in California, they still struggle with academic English.

What’s going wrong?

"It’s been very hard to get the state to take this on as a priority, says researcher Laurie Olsen, who holds a Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Studies in Education from U.C. Berkeley.  "There’s no plan in the state and there needs to be."

If anyone has the answer, it might be  Olsen. For more than a decade, she's really zeroed in on this population of kids.  She's on the board of Californians Together, a coalition focused on protecting the rights of English Learners.

"Teachers would start telling me about this group of kids they didn't know what to do with, that weren't the immigrant kids, the newcomer kids. Many of the kids had been in the states their whole lives, but clearly they didn't have the language they really needed to participate meaningfully in school," says Olsen.

Remember the English-Only movement of the late 1990s, when voters passed Proposition 227, banning bilingual education?  By the time Lidia started kindergarten in San Jose, all teaching had to be in English, with little to no help in Spanish. That affected her performance in other subjects.

"I struggled with math because of how the teachers would explain it in English and they’d use all these words I didn’t understand. And I would be like 'I don’t know what you’re saying. And this is hard,'" she says.

It wasn’t until eighth grade that Lidia tested out of English Language Learner status. That’s so late, she was in danger of getting stuck. Thousands of kids like her never become proficient in English, and many eventually drop out. One reason they stall is they often go unnoticed: They are typically quiet and sit in the back of the classroom. They often don’t cause trouble. There’s even a label for them now: Long-Term English Learners, or LTELs.

Bryan Luque, seven, works on his English homework, with siblings Angel, Valentin and Lidia behind.
Bryan Luque, seven, works on his English homework, with siblings Angel, Valentin and Lidia behind. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

"By the time the students get to me, they don’t know what a noun and a verb is, so what’s going on?" asks eighth-grade teacher Mike Sbarbaro.

He teaches at Luther Burbank School, where the Luque boys attend. Three-quarters of the students are English learners. And that lack of exposure to native English speakers makes it more difficult for kids to learn the language from one another. That's unfortunate, because experts say peer language learning can be powerful.

Sbarbaro, for his part, thinks the reason kids get stuck is hard to pinpoint.

"This is not on the teachers," says Sbarbaro. "This is on the system. This is something intangible that we don’t know yet."

Luther Burbank Principal Marvelyn Maldonado has been trying to figure it out.  She knows what kids are going through: She was an English-language learner herself.  She’s started after-school programs and English classes for parents.  She’s installed high-tech white boards that link images and text -- visuals that reinforce language.

The result is that far more Luther Burbank English learners in eighth grade ace the English test than kids in the state overall. Still, a third of students in eighth grade at Luther Burbank are stuck.

"We’re certainly not satisfied with where we’re at," says Maldonado. "We recognize that we have a long way to go. A long, long way to go."

It's not just Luther Burbank.  Schools across California have a long way to go, says researcher Laurie Olsen.

"What’s been applied to this group of struggling students are all the wrong kinds of interventions, all the wrong things, as if they’re just like struggling native-speaking students."

The state is now legally obligated to track the progress of these students.  And California is focusing on English learners with new intensity:  For two years now, Governor Brown has been sending more money to schools specifically to help English learners.

If the money is used effectively,  it just might help Lidia's little brothers learn English faster.

This is the first in a three-part series about what it will take for California to succeed with the nearly 1.5 million students in public schools who are learning English as a second language.

Tomorrow, we'll meet Lidia's younger brother Jose Daniel and learn about his struggle to avoid the dead end of never learning English.

On Thursday, we'll meet their fifth-grade brother Angel, who's at an age where the right teaching could make a big difference.

This story was reported in collaboration with Renaissance Journalism’s Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education, with funding from the Ford Foundation.

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Zaidee Stavely contributed to this piece.

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