Davis High English immersion program lauded; will new board policy send it ‘backward’?

Language Institute teacher Amelia Herrera-Evans works with students Karen Rios, left, and Jaqueline Flores at Davis High School in Modesto, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 27.
NAN AUSTIN/ Language Institute teacher Amelia Herrera-Evans works with students Karen Rios, left, and Jaqueline Flores at Davis High School in Modesto, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 27. Modesto Bee

A program for immigrant high schoolers in Modesto City Schools has won awards for immersing the students in English, enabling them to complete graduation requirements and attend college.

Yet, leaders of the program say a new school board policy will make things tougher for the students to get the college education they need to thrive in their adopted country.

“We feel we are going backwards,” said Amelia Herrera, a teacher at Davis High School’s Language Institute. “There are going to be quite a few students that could have gone to a four-year college caught in the crosshairs of the new policy.”

The students in the Davis program include recent immigrants from Latin American countries and refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan whose families were resettled in Modesto.

The Davis program helps the students with acculturation and gives them confidence to pursue an education. A new district policy, however, won’t allow the college-bound students to use a “fifth year” option to take courses making them eligible for university admission.

In addition, the extra year can’t be used for improving their English in order to succeed in college.

Program leaders and district officials said this week that the college options for LI graduates are now mostly limited to junior college. The fifth year or “super senior” option is only for completing high school graduation requirements, school board President Amy Neumann confirmed.

“The district is trying to provide a high school diploma to as many students as come through the door,” Neumann said. “Whether they get to A-G depends on the student.” A-G is a term referring to University of California coursework requirements.

Lindsey Bird, who’s been coordinator of the Davis program, created in 2009, said she was not aware of the change in policy until students, by order of the district office, were moved from language classes to mainstream classrooms at the start of the fall semester. There’s concern some newcomer students had not acquired enough English ability to learn in those classrooms.

Bird said early this week that she has not been able to give parents much of an explanation for the new policy. “We started asking questions and (the district) kept telling us it was the will of the board,” she said.

Students in the Language Institute often need extra time to prepare for college, because they first need to learn English and then take mainstream coursework. It’s virtually impossible for teenage new arrivals to squeeze in college eligibility courses unless they have an extra year.

Many granted an extra year are simply getting a fourth year of high school.

Upward of 90 percent of Language Institute graduates each year have moved on to college, which is among the reasons the program earned awards from the California School Board Association and California Department of Education in 2015. About 10 percent of the graduates last year had plans to attend a four-year college and many planned to attend Modesto Junior College.

The program’s top students have regularly spoken at school board meetings about equal opportunity in higher education. Last spring about 20 LI students who applied for an extra year were placed in limbo while the school district worked on a fifth-year policy, which is offered to students districtwide who have good behavior. Foster teens or children of military families sometimes exercise the option.

To help accommodate the newcomer students, the school board approved an enrollment policy that places 16- or 17-year-olds in 10th grade to help them catch up on the education they missed during the resettlement process. In addition, the new fifth year option is open to 19- or 20-year-olds. Students must be able to graduate in that extra year.

At a May workshop and two board meetings in June, LI students and members of a coalition that supports them urged the board to support the students’ desire for a diploma and college education. Supporters did not hear board discussion, however, on imposing restrictions on fifth-year coursework.

“We would have hit the roof had they told us our students were not eligible for the time they need to graduate literate and university eligible,” said Bird, who’s an outspoken advocate for the students.

Trustee Chad Brown said Tuesday that he recently heard about the changes affecting the Language Institute. “It was not my intent,” he said. “I really want to research this more.”

Marla Mack, associate superintendent of education services, said that completing requirements for a diploma is the purpose of the district-wide fifth-year option. She said that 80 percent of LI students self-report a plan to attend MJC after graduation. In some cases, students in the Language Institute might be able to work in A-G classes by the time they graduate.

Bird suggested that district officials may not understand that her students need the extra time to work on English literacy before attending MJC. The refugees and immigrants, many of whom arrive with limited English and gaps in education, face serious obstacles to getting an education.

Rosario Piceno, whose daughter just entered the program, said the freshman should have more options when it’s time to graduate from high school.

“I went to MJC and got stuck and never finished,” the parent said. “There was not enough room in the classes I needed. My daughter has wanted to be a veterinarian since she was 4 years old.”

Joy Koski, a site coordinator for the district’s Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, program, said the service to help students prepare for college admission has to show it’s inclusive of the entire student population. A number of LI students wear the AVID shirts when they speak at school board meetings.

“We have had a lot of success with students coming into the (Language Institute) and not had that many who needed extra time,” Koski said. Language Institute graduates who are at four-year colleges are an inspiration for younger students who have the same dream.

“It is disappointing we are not going to continue with that process,” Koski said.