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Are Too Many California Kids Labeled English Language Learners?

A child plays in the playground of Chula Vista's Thurgood Marshall Elementary School during recess.
Ruxandra Guidi
A child plays in the playground of Chula Vista's Thurgood Marshall Elementary School during recess.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained a video. It has been taken down due to an error in the reporting. The Fronteras Desk regrets the error.

Restless little kids played outside during mid-morning recess, chasing each other and bouncing balls at Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Chula Vista.

Of the more than 700 students, about a third are Latino.

Most of these Latino kids were tested in kindergarten and classified by the school as English Language Learners (ELL). Since 1998, California has done away with a single standard for bilingual education and has instead put ELL students in a wide variety of English Immersion classes. It is then up to each school district, and each particular school to tailor programs for ELL students.


After recess, a dozen third graders sat in a half-hour English refresher class. Half of them practiced spelling out loud while the other half were at computers with headphones on. Technology has been an important tool for teachers like Terri Martinson, who has taught at Thurgood Marshall for 22 years.

“For 30 minutes every day, they go on the computer and it’s personalized for them," she said. "That has been a huge help for us."

But not all these English Learners in this class were kids from immigrant backgrounds.

"In fact, one or two of the students in the group today are English speakers, but they have a very limited background and their vocabulary is very limited," Martinson said. "So we are also giving them extra support.”

Among educators, there is growing controversy over the number of kids who end up tested and classified as ELLs, segregated into different classes for extended periods of time.


There are an estimated 1.6 million ELL students in California and most schools lack ways to track ELL progress. But last year in the statewide English test, only one in 10 reached proficiency levels. While ELL students are be growing in numbers, in other respects, they are being left behind.

The Borundas are a Mexican-American family, living just a couple of blocks away from the Thurgood Marshall School. Sons Nicholas and Alexander both were classified as English Language Learners.

“I've got like four or five friends that are Mexican, but they don’t speak Spanish," explained Alexander. "Sometimes we speak a little bit in Spanish, a few simple sentences, but that’s all.”

Their father Alfredo Borunda said he was surprised when he found out his kids were classified as ELLs a couple of years ago; they came home from school with questionnaire results needing to be signed.

“One of their questionnaires included questions about what languages were spoken at home, and we answered that we spoke Spanish at home," Borunda said. "So that’s why they were classified as English Learners.”

Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story we said that both Borunda boys were classified as English Language Learners. We neglected to include the fact that one of the boys has been reclassified as an English speaker. The Fronteras Desk regrets the error.

Borunda said his kids score very well on language skills and are even part of the GATE program, for gifted and talented students. By being classified as ELLs, he worries that his kids could be losing access to the best classes and end up being discriminated against for speaking Spanish. In fact, Borunda's older son has since been reclassified as a fluent English speaker.

Sitting in his office, Thurgood Marshall School Principal Chris Gunnett defends the program. He said the extra attention given to the school’s large ELL population has boosted test scores and helped his school’s overall Academic Performance Index jump to 908—way above the state’s target of 800.

“I think it’s a piece to help the children," he explained. "We have multiple ways to address that — Dual Immersion programs, we have bilingual programs, Structured English Immersion. But we have a variety because we want to provide that for our parents, and the children.”

The bottom line is that there are powerful budgetary reasons for schools to keep ELL classes the way they are. According to a 2005 state audit, California schools earn an average of $448 of federal and state money per English Learner, per year.

"Unfortunately, I think there is a budgetary incentive to keep this model going," said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley's Graduate School of Education. "So if we were suddenly to reduce the number of students by a significant amount that would have very detrimental circumstances.”

Currently, there are efforts to revamp the ELL system. The largest school district in the state, Los Angeles Unified, recently announced plans to establish a single ELL curriculum that will allow them to track students’ success over time.

Corrected: December 8, 2023 at 12:52 AM PST
Video by Katie Euphrat