Best way to help English learners not as simple as the math

The research is clear. Informed parents are passionate. But what works best to teach Spanish-speaking kids English is not an easy sell, at kitchen tables or the Capitol, and some southwest Modesto students are caught in a crossfire of good intentions.

A parent uproar has greeted plans to move dual language immersion classes from Fairview Elementary School to Bret Harte Elementary School, just over a mile away. But a wider issue is why the program is not the standard for both Spanish-leaning schools, when decades of research and the district’s own data show it works.

California Rural Legal Assistance has weighed in on behalf of the parents, focusing on Modesto City Schools’ plan for spending millions of additional dollars the district will get to serve English learners in the coming year.

In letters to the district board and the Stanislaus County Office of Education, CRLA attorney Ubaldo Fernandez said there was little input by Spanish-speaking parents and no school goals or specific spending laid out to help English learners. Fernandez said Friday that keeping the dual language program at Fairview was a specific proposal made by parents. “I think the district should respond to that,” he said.

More than 70 percent of students come to Fairview from Spanish-speaking homes. At Bret Harte, 78 percent of students arrive as English learners. Both schools sit in Modesto’s gang injunction zone, Fairview on the southern border and Bret Harte in the center.

Modesto City Schools started the Dual Language Academy in 2010-11 with two kindergarten classes at both schools. Students are taught half the day in English and half the day in Spanish. One week they work on language arts in English, math in Spanish, vice versa the next week, learning all subjects in both languages.

The vast majority of Modesto’s English learners attend traditional classes, with extra help. Of Modesto City’s 4,500 English learners in elementary schools, 240 were in the Dual Language Academy in 2013-14, by state figures.

Next year, the first DLA class starts fourth grade, where class sizes shift from 24 to 34, and each school would have had about 11/2 classes of DLA students. The class-size math, and teachers’ desire for greater collaboration, made the shift to one school inevitable, district administrators said.

“In hindsight, that should never have been started at two schools,” said Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson. Kindergarten and fourth grade will all be at Bret Harte this coming year, with grades 1 to 3 moving in 2015-16. Fairview students will be bused to the other campus.

Shifting the program to Fairview, already so overcrowded it has eight lunch sittings, would have forced hundreds of students outside the dual language program to move. “We looked at overall student movement,” Johnson said.

Recently remodeled Bret Harte had the room, making it the obvious choice, she said.

But Fairview parents see the obvious choice as their school, surrounded by fields and orchards instead of the postage stamp plots and chain-link fences of Bret Harte. Out of the 42 DLA third-graders at Fairview in 2013-14, only 24 will move with the program and start fourth grade at Bret Harte, by district count.

“Our school’s more of a country school,” said Fairview parent Hilda Trejo. Her fears of a rougher campus led her to take her son out of the program for fourth grade. “I didn't want him sent to Bret Harte. The scores are lower than Fairview and they had a lot of lockdowns,” she said.

By the numbers, Bret Harte’s test scores are significantly lower. Three-year average schoolwide scores for the two schools are 692 for Bret Harte, third-lowest of the district’s 22 elementary campuses, compared with 753 for Fairview, squarely in the middle of the pack. Last year Fairview had a 6.1 percent suspension rate and one expulsion, compared with a 6.9 percent rate at Bret Harte with two expulsions. Fairview had one lockdown. Bret Harte had two, according to district figures.

Deanna Cervantes agreed to send her twin daughters to Bret Harte, but also has them on a waiting list for Osborn Two-Way Immersion Academy in Turlock, a schoolwide dual language program.

Cervantes said her twins, and a second-grader who would move the following year, have flourished in dual language classes. “We’re a low-income community. We don’t have drama. We don’t have art. But we had this,” she said.

Cervantes speaks English, but her husband’s family speaks Spanish and they want their four children to be fluent in both languages. Her daughter in junior high spoke Spanish as a younger child but has lost the language. “She’s having a hard time. She understands it, but she doesn't speak it,” Cervantes said.

Trejo sees the same thing with her son in fifth grade, while her fourth-grader is doing well in both languages.

Both families are seeing a typical pattern for Spanish-speaking children pushed solely toward English. They never get beyond the home chatter level of Spanish, and while they master enough English for early grades, many will not keep up as the work gets harder.

A national study that was released in April by the American Educational Research Association found that large numbers of English learners testing as fluent in early grades will falter after fourth grade, falling further and further behind. Low-income Spanish-speakers, who tend to be massed in schools with few native-English-speaking classmates, are particularly at risk, the study noted.

Results from dual language programs show the opposite, students that on average outperform their peers in English-only programs in later grades, according to research cited by other dual language schools in the area.

Nationwide, the dual language trend is on the rise, with more than 850 programs in place. The numbers are growing in California as well, despite the bureaucratic hurdles posed by Proposition 227, passed in 1998, which mandates teaching only in English unless parents sign waivers.

The Ceres Unified School District opened Lucas Elementary School with just kindergartners last year and will have full-day kindergarten and first grade this year. Principal Israel Gonzalez said the school had to work to raise awareness of higher achievement in dual language programs for both Spanish and English native speakers.

“We had Spanish-speaking parents say, ‘I don’t want my children learning more Spanish, they get that at home.’ But really, when we explain the program, they understand,” Gonzalez said, adding that strong parent involvement has been one of the benefits.

Lucas in Ceres, Osborn in Turlock, the Riverbank Language Academy charter school and Grayson Charter in Patterson are all schoolwide dual language programs. All Livingston middle and elementary schools, and Walnut Grove School in Patterson, offer a choice of dual language or traditional classes.

Osborn’s program is the oldest in the area, celebrating its 20th anniversary last year. Passionate parent advocates helped that west Turlock program weather the challenges of the Proposition 227 years, and today it has more applicants who speak English at home than Spanish, Principal Ed Ewing said.

The Grayson dual language program has turned around what was likely the lowest-performing school in the county, said Patterson Unified School District Superintendent Phil Alfano. In 1999, its state-averaged school score was about 400. In recent years, that figure has about doubled. In 2013, half of Grayson English learners in fifth grade were at grade level or above in reading English, compared with 7 percent districtwide.

The Modesto program’s results speak for themselves, said Melanie McCleary, who helped develop the program. In 2013, some 43 percent of DLA English learners in second grade tested at or above grade level in reading English, compared with 27 percent at similar schools.

Looking strictly at gains in learning English year over year, kids in dual language classes made far greater strides than Modesto students in similar schools attending traditional classes, her figures show.

“The district is committed to continuing the DLA,” McCleary said. “The best way to support this is to build an exemplary program.”