Avoiding the Dead End of Never Learning English

From left to right, Valentin, Lidia, Bryan, Angel, and Jose Daniel Luque. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Jose Daniel Luque likes to play the wise guy in his family.

"I’m the cool one in this house," says the eighth-grader. "I’m like my sister, we follow the trends. But I’m not a hippie. And my little brothers are very annoying."

Jose Daniel was born in San Jose. He learned Spanish from his parents, who are Mexican immigrants. He says he speaks the best English in the house.

"Because English is where my homeland is!" he says. "If I speak Spanish right now, I speak in a totally different tone. Watch, I’ll demonstrate. Hola, hello. See?"

So how did his English get so good?

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"Like any kid learns how to speak English -- TV! ... I would sit like some monk and like watch for an hour-and-a-half while my parents did all their stuff."

Jose Daniel Luque plays video games after school.
Jose Daniel Luque plays video games after school. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

As anyone can tell, Jose Daniel speaks a lot of English. But at the end of seventh grade, his K-8 school, Luther Burbank in San Jose, still considered him an English learner.

It’s been more than four decades since the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark case involving San Francisco Unified School District, ruled that students whose first language is not English must receive extra help to learn it, otherwise their education would be meaningless. Yet today, California schools are still under scrutiny by the federal government for failing to educate English learners.

Experts say Jose Daniel should have been able to ditch that learner label by now, after spending his whole life in U.S. schools. But more than 339,000 kids in the state’s middle and high schools still haven't acquired the English skills to fully participate in class, even after years of being taught only in English.

The consequences are dire. More than 20 percent of those who are still English learners in high school drop out. That’s a higher rate than African-Americans, Latinos and special education students.

That’s not what Jose sees happening to him.

"I want to go to college, Santa Clara University. Marine biology. That's my favorite thing in the whole world," he says.

Jose Daniel hugs his little brother Valentin as sister Lidia looks on.
Jose Daniel hugs his little brother Valentin as sister Lidia looks on. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

But Jose has struggled to pass the English proficiency exam and English-Language Arts test each year since kindergarten. He must pass both to show he can read, write and speak English with enough sophistication to prove he knows the language thoroughly.

There is one proficiency test for kids in each group of grades. In other words, kids take the same test from third to fifth, sixth to eighth, and ninth to 12th grades. One of Jose's eighth-grade teachers, Mike Sbarbaro, says he understands why the proficiency test is necessary but thinks it determines who has English skills "in a very undermining and insulting way."

"And these eighth-graders, they realize this," he says. "I can tell in their faces. When I ask them, 'What is this?' and I point to a picture of a carrot, they look at me as if I’m an idiot. 'Are you serious?' And I think, wait, is this the best approach? Don’t we want these kids to feel confident? If they’re already struggling, why would we treat them as if they’re incompetent?"

Though the test's listening and speaking sections are often easy for many students, the writing and reading sections can frequently pose challenges, especially in the higher grades.

Jose Daniel doesn’t really know why he has to take the test.  After all, he thinks he’s a wiz at English. Many kids think they are fluent because they get along socially. But academically, they struggle.

"The fact that there are so many students who’ve been in our schools for six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years and are stuck at this level without getting to the English proficiency they need is an indication that something’s really wrong with the way we’re going about educating English learners," says Laurie Olsen.

Olsen is a researcher who’s spent most of her career trying to help English learners.  She's pushed the state to start tracking kids who have gotten stuck; California began doing that last year. Now, one question that's started to attract attention is exactly how long it should take to make students English proficient.

Getting Reclassified

The moment Jose can prove he is academically proficient in English, he will be reclassified and move out of the English learners category into that of a mainstream student.

Exactly when kids should be reclassified is something of a controversial topic. The state has a minimum standard, but each school district has its own criteria for deciding when a student is fluent.

"Why a student does or does not progress is very individual to the local education agency," says Elena Fajardo, administrator of the California Department of Education’s Language, Policy and Leadership Office. Local education agency, or LEA, is a term used for school district.

"How many of their teachers are authorized to teach? How many have the expertise? How many ELs do they have? The expectation has always been, you will provide language development to your students. What that is differs from LEA to LEA."

Jose's K-8 school, Luther Burbank, is the only one in its district.  The school has set the bar higher than in most other districts and higher than the state standard -- kids at Luther Burbank have to receive an advanced score on the English proficiency test to move up and out. They also have to get proficient scores on other standardized tests. Students often spend nine years learning English before getting reclassified. It's supposed to take five to seven years.

"We are a K-8 school and we really want to make sure that before students are reclassified that they really are proficient, especially before they move on to high school," says Principal Marvelyn Maldonado.

Luther Burbank may be right to be this strict: There is some evidence to show students who prove they are advanced at all levels of comprehension go on to do really well in high school -- better than many regular students, in fact.

But the flip side of this argument is that schools are hanging onto kids too long. The cynical view is that schools do this because they receive more money from the state for each English learner they have. But some say it's because the schools aren't doing a good enough job of teaching English from the very beginning.

"It’s not about when you get reclassified," says researcher Laurie Olsen. "It’s about when we get kids to the level they need."

Olsen says that now that schools know how many of these students are in their classrooms, schools can do something simple to make a difference.

"Sitting down with them and saying, 'Look, you want to go to college, this is what you need. Because your English is here and here’s where your gap is, it’s going to keep you from doing this. This is what you need to do now. That goal-setting unlocks tremendous energy in Long-Term English Learners. Someone has shown them a pathway."

Jose Daniel walks home from school with brothers Valentin and Bryan and sister Lidia.
Jose Daniel walks home from school with brothers Valentin and Bryan and sister Lidia. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Jose is now about to enter high school.  This is where kids can falter, even those who speak English. When schools take this long to teach kids the language,  students are losing out on core content material -- the  math, science, and language arts -- that they need to make it in high school.

Right now, Jose can't wait to follow his older sister to high school. He thinks he'll do just fine.

At the Luques' dinner table, the kids speak English to each other, even as their dad talks to them in Spanish.  There's a terribly irony here: Jose's parents have asked him and his older sister to speak to the younger kids in English. They were convinced this would help them do better in school.

Now, the parents are realizing, the little boys have lost their Spanish. Their dad, Daniel, knows it distances him from his children.

"I even feel mad, because I can’t understand them," says Mr. Luque, in Spanish. "Since they learned more English in school and with cartoons, they sometimes want to speak in English all day with each other. But I say to them that they should try to speak a little more Spanish at home with us so we can understand them when we all sit down to eat dinner."

There are entire generations of California students now like the Luque kids, who are not fluent in their native language and are still not proficient enough in English to make it through high school.

And this is the real loss, says researcher Laurie Olsen: Our schools are depriving kids of a chance to be truly bilingual, which is a skill that’s in demand.

This is the second in a series about what it will take for California to succeed with the nearly one and a half million students in public schools who are learning English as a second language.

To read about the Luque family and Jose's older sister Lidia who came to California as a baby and is now considered proficient, go here.

Tomorrow, we'll meet Jose’s fifth grade brother Angel to find out more about what teachers can do to help kids get ahead.

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 story.

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