More than 500 students attend Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento. Many of them speak English as a second language. Under the state's new way of handing out money, schools with large numbers of these students are now receiving additional dollars to help accelerate academic improvement. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)
At the beginning of every class, Craig shuffles through a stack of flashcards and asks students to sound out letters and blend those sounds together.
“It’s very scientific,” Craig says. “I almost feel like a doctor who gives a test, and you see what the prescription is. There’s a lot of repetition. I’ve been teaching this program for five years, and I always see students make a ton of growth.”
Many of the students in Craig’s classes are English learners -- or those who speak English as a second language. Most speak Spanish at home, but others speak Hmong.
They get about 45 minutes of intense instruction four days a week on the basics of the English language. Teachers say this program is instrumental because it gives English learners the linguistic know-how to “crack the code” to more rigorous course content in their classrooms.
That’s why many of them were shocked when the principal scaled back the program last year. Before, there were four reading specialists. Now, they’re down to Craig.
Then, a few months ago, more bad news: Craig learned her position will be cut next year.
“The most valuable resource is a human resource,” Craig says. “Our kids really do benefit from getting extra support based on their needs. So it does make me just a little bit nervous about what is going to happen now.”
Tough Spending Decisions
Despite getting an extra $187,000 this year to help at-risk kids -- the state’s new way of handing out money -- Oak Ridge still has to make cuts because several other streams of funding are drying up.
A big chunk of the state money next year is paying for the school’s assistant principal. But some teachers argue specialists are more critical.
Fourth-grade teacher Stephanie Smith says there is a “hidden” population of English learners at Oak Ridge. They may speak English conversationally but they are not proficient academically. They’re also not proficient in their native language -- so they’re often stuck.
“I do think we do need more staff,” Smith says. “That’s a huge thing for me because a glossy cool curriculum is not going to make a difference unless we systematically figure out where we are going to put our human resources.”
Nine-year-old Kenya Vargas Zepeda is one English learner at Oak Ridge who still struggles. The fourth-grader was born in Mexico and went to preschool in that country. She has attended Oak Ridge since kindergarten and says her biggest obstacle is writing.
“When I was little, I used to have a lot of imagination in my head. I used to have all these ideas to write about,” Kenya says. “I don’t know what happened, but my thoughts aren’t that good anymore. And I don’t really know what to write down."
Kenya's mother, April Ybarra, is an outspoken parent leader at Oak Ridge who is trying to hold the school and the Sacramento Unified School District more accountable for how officials choose to spend additional state funding intended for English learners.
She and other education advocates worry that school leaders are simply funding existing people and programs without exploring other ways to approach school improvement for this specific group of students.
“Schools now have the freedom to spend this extra money. So it’s easy for them to say, ‘We should use this money to pay for a librarian.’ But, realistically, will that librarian help English learners more than a language specialist?” Ybarra asks.
Public interest law groups, including the ACLU SoCal and Public Advocates, insist those districts are depriving English language learners of state funds that should be directed to their education.
English Learners Face Difficult Transition
At Oak Ridge, more English learners are transitioning to mainstream classes. However, state test results last year show more than half of them are not meeting new academic standards called Common Core. The situation mirrors what is happening at schools across the state.
Educators say that’s because English learners enter the public school system at so many different levels of language proficiency.
I sat down with Oak Ridge principal Daniel Rolleri to find out why he eliminated the full-time language specialists in favor of putting state funds intended to help English learners toward an assistant principal.
He argues the assistant principal manages student behavior problems at school, which helps all children -- including English learners -- focus on learning. He says students struggling with English will get support from the school’s special education instructor.
“We have talented teachers, and once we have time to discuss (the standards) and analyze them, they’ll take off and run with it,” Rolleri says.
On top of that, he points out test scores will no longer be the only way to measure school success. Under the state’s new accountability system, things like student engagement and school climate will likely be factored into the mix.
“When you deal with the reality of the community that we serve, I feel that we are providing the highest-quality education that we can for our students and our families, and I feel they genuinely appreciate it and love us for that.”
But all these spending decisions are a gamble, and the community is on edge. The only way to find out if the more than 500 students at Oak Ridge will benefit is to come back in a few years.
This report is the fourth in Budgeting From the Blacktop, a four-part series by Ana Tintocalis taking a deep look at Oak Ridge Elementary in Sacramento.