About a quarter of California’s public schools students are learning English as a second language. But by middle and high school more than half of those students have not mastered English.
Like many long-term English learners, Desiree Vauve was born here. But she hasn’t spent all of her school years in San Diego.
“My mom took me over to another country when I was young, that’s why," she said. "I had to visit my sisters and it’s in the Philippines and then we got stuck in there, so my aunt had to help me out and stuff to come back.”
She came back in 2006, but despite seven years in San Diego schools, there are still some things the 15-year-old has trouble with in English.
“One thing is that my paragraphs," she said, "putting it in sentences and putting it in my own words. That’s kind of difficult for me. Like putting it in past tense. That’s kind of what’s slowing me down a little bit. The rest is easy – it’s just the writing."
Her struggles are familiar to California’s Long-Term English Learners -- tens of thousands of whom have spent all their school years in the U.S.
But, this year, things are starting to change for Vauve thanks to a new class she’s taking with a dozen other students at Serra High School in Tierrasanta.
Lynda Lavine teaches the class called Academic Language Development, and on a recent morning she started Vauve's class with a sample sentence which read, "I know students who can really discuss different opinions about boy and girl problems at this school."
She coaches the students through replacing the words "discuss different opinions" and "boy and girl problems" with more precise vocabulary words.
Through exercises like this, close deconstruction of readings and writing assignments, Lavine works with students on improving vocabulary, sentence structure and understanding the components of different kinds of academic writing.
“They’ll sit and they’ll chat with me," she said. "They’re ok and they communicate with each other. But it’s when they have to sit down and talk about texts and academically being able to pull that all together and pull their ideas together and be able to articulate what it is they’re trying to.”
Last year California adopted a formal definition of Long-Term English Learners.
“Typically they’re students that have been in our district since Kinder, first grade. They’re pushing into middle school, or high school, still designated as English learners,” said Mary Waldron, director of San Diego Unified's Office of Language Acquisition. The students also have to be struggling academically in their non-English classes to be considered part of this group.
This year Waldrom is overseeing the introduction of these language development classes at 11 city schools. She said about 6,000 of San Diego Unified’s more than 35,000 English learners are Long-Term English Learners.
The goals of the new courses extend beyond improving the students’ language skills.
“We certainly want to see some improvement in their academic skills both within the pilot course and in their other courses, too," Waldron said. "Just an increase in their self-confidence and their ability to apply what they’re learning in this course.”
Lavine is seeing that kind of progress in the mainstream English classes where she teaches the same students, and in their other classes.
“They’re in a science class together and a student said, ‘well he didn’t use our language frames.’ Or they would be catching me when I wasn’t using mine," she said. "And so we started to see that bleed over not only into English but into other classes as well. So then in their writing, same thing. They're writing in their other classes because they’ve been given tools that they need more so than what is the gap that they’re filling.”
Once Lavine’s lesson is over, student Ricardo Mondragon, 15, points out some of those language frames posted on the classroom wall.
“It tells us if we want to have more academic words, like more educated words. And it tells us, like , disagree," he said, pointing to a board filled with sentence starters. "Like over there, if we want to disagree, we say ‘I disagree with …’ then whatever.”
These may not seem like complicated lessons but evidence is mounting that targeted strategies like this can make a difference. Escondido Union High School District has been lauded for Long-Term English Learner classes like these and getting the students into classes like Spanish for Native Speakers and Advanced Placement courses. Those efforts are paying off. The district’s percentage of English Learners passing into has outpaced state and county averages consistently since 2003.
Desiree Vauve said she can certainly see the focus on academic language skills making a difference in her mainstream English class.
“Last year I got a B, now I have an A+, so my uncle was happy with that,” she said.
Between 200 and 250 San Diego Unified students are in one of this year’s pilot language classes. But Waldron said other principals want to bring the class to their campuses.
Similar classes are likely to grow outside of San Diego schools as well. Now that the state has a uniform definition for which students are Long-Term English Learners and which students are at risk of joining this group. Because of that Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together believes more districts will take action.
Her organization has published several reports on Long-Term English Learners in California schools and worked on the legislation to create the state definition. Last year about 40 school districts in the state had created the kind of language development classes San Diego is trying out this year. Many did that after reading Californians Together's research and realizing many of their students were Long-Term English Learners.
"We do see there is real hope, because we do see districts really attending to Long-Term English Learners," Spiegel-Coleman said. Her group is developing recommendations for strategies to prevent students becoming Long-Term English Learners.