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English-Learning Students Struggle to Keep Up


Roughly one in four students in San Diego County is learning English as a second language. Most speak Spanish as their first language. Teachers say politicians have placed incredible pressure on these young people because students are required to learn a new language but get no break on state and federal academic standards. KPBS Education reporter Ana Tintocalis has this report.

Welcome to Mr. Diaz’s sixth-grade English class at Montgomery Middle School. Twelve-year-old Alberto Cuadra is one of the newest students. He was born in San Diego but lives in Tijuana. Each day Alberto crosses the border to San Ysidro to attend school. You can hear he’s gaining a grasp of the language when he speaks. 

Alberto: My little brother is seven years old, and my sister is 14.

Alberto is one of the 116,000 students in San Diego County who is learning English as a second language. Julio Diaz is Alberto’s teacher. Diaz’s job is to get students learning English as quickly as possible.

Diaz: And I tell my kids, I know its difficult for you to understand this right now. But as you move on through the years and move on to college, you will understand you have to learn English. You have to learn it.

Diaz understands what his students are going through. He moved to San Diego from Tijuana when he was a teenager. Diaz remembers being thrust into high school without knowing any English. He says the biggest obstacle for non-native English speakers is not a test or evaluation – it’s the fear of speaking in public. Diaz says teasing and taunting impacts a student’s desire to learn. Seventh-graders Daniela Munoz and Carlos Rodriguez are two Montgomery school students who have managed to deal with the social pressure.

Daniela: Sometimes you get used to it, because they laugh at you and stuff.

Carlos: I really didn’t get mad or nothing I just laugh with them – I told them how do you pronounce it again, or how do you spell it?  

Daneila and Carlos are the first people in their families to speak English. The two students are on their way to becoming fluent.

Daniela: For me the hardest part is to write it, because there’s some words that I can’t write. Like words that are really long, that have at least 10 letters, some of them are hard, that are tricky.

Daniela and Carlos could be placed in regular classes with native-English speakers by next year. But the two students have to practice speaking English regularly in order to improve. Carlos says that’s a tough assignment.

Carlos: Not a lot of people in my family actually speak the English, its only my Dad and my dad works all the time. And my mother knows nothing of English.

Julio Diaz, Carlos’ teacher, says that’s common for many non-native English speakers. And even if there is someone who can help, Diaz says some kids don’t see the value in learning the language.

Diaz: Anywhere you go down here, they speak Spanish. It’s a requirement probably to get a job there. They’re so close to the border that, they don’t feel like they have a need. So yeah I think that affects their learning.

And that can translate into poor performance in class and on tests. Twelve-year-old Daniela and her friend Camile Martinez admit when it comes to test time, they leave many answers blank.   

Daneila: Some are hard to understand. I like I skip the question and if I have time I go back.

Camile: If don’t know what it means I’ll just bubble in and whatever.

The stakes are high for English learners in California today. Under Proposition 227, students who are learning English as a second language are expected to be fluent after attending school for one year. At the same time, federal academic standards require English learners to perform at the same level as native-English speakers.  

Rosalie Salinas is with Californians Together, an advocacy group for English learners. She believes state and federal education policies need to be more flexible.

Salinas: We’re asking these students to perform at an academic level maybe in a year of being here, compared to students who have been hearing the language, using the language for six to seven years already.

But some educators believe the policies are producing results. Oceanside Unified School

Superintendent Ken Noonan, once a bilingual educator, supports a program that pushes non-native English speakers to learn the language quickly. Noonan says they can handle the pressure. 

Noonan: The kids are pretty resilient. In fact the children are more resilient than adults in that environment.

English learners will face new challenges once they become fluent and move into regular classes. Many students who are learning English as a second language are reluctant to move because they don’t feel comfortable around native-English speakers. But 12-year-old Carlos Rodriguez says he won’t be afraid.  

Carlos: No I’m not scared, I know if I keep doing the right thing, I learn it right and be a good student.

Like many English learners, Carlos says he wants to learn English so he can go to college and have a good job. But state test scores show non-native English speakers are behind their peers by virtually every measure. Top educators are calling for increased efforts to improve the achievement of English learners. They say these students must learn English or their future and the state’s economy could pay dearly. Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.

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