Teaching English to young immigrants is a little like working with free agents in sports: You never know how long it’ll be before they move on.
The combination of high immigration rates and housing costs on the Peninsula keeps many immigrant children mobile, according to Gary Johnson, deputy superintendent in the Jefferson High School District.
Considering it can take five or more years for them to gain fluency — both conversationally and academically — that can be bad news for students and schools alike.
“You gather them together, sprint for one year, and there’s no guarantee it will be the same kids next year,” Johnson said. “You try to figure out how you’re going to get the most out of them.”
Sometimes students don’t realize until their senior year how important fluency is to their future success, said Elena Henderson, who teaches at Redwood High School.
“They hear about it, but they don’t completely believe it,” Henderson said. “That dawning doesn’t always take place until they’re a little bit older. But what gives me heart is that some students don’t give up, and they go to adult programs. It’s never too late.”
Each year, 2 to 9 percent of local schools’ populations are new immigrants, many of whom come to the Peninsula with little to no English. But under No Child Left Behind, schools are required to show annual improvement on standardized tests — even among English-language learners — and the constant influx prevents schools from making enough progress.
In the north county, the district with the most English learners — Daly City’s Jefferson Elementary — failed to meet federal benchmarks in 2005-06.
South San Francisco’s Parkway Heights Middle School, where 31 percent of students are English-language learners, is facing its fourth year of federal penalties, according to the California Department of Education.
The challenge, for both students and teachers, is helping students understand not just plain English, but what officials call “academic language,” according to Christina Robles, English Language Development coordinator for the Jefferson Elementary School District.
“[These exams] test whether students can understand the written word and the implications of those words, and the application of those to a word or a math problem. It’s very complex,” Johnson said.
When state and federal assessment scores were released last summer, California Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell railed against the growing achievement gap.
Despite O’Connell’s crusade, however, districts continue to make do with existing general-fund dollars and scarce grant money when it comes to teaching English-language learners. Only Jefferson received additional funding this year — $35,000 — because its number of immigrant students increased, according to Johnson.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools and districts must show progress on student test scores, specifically on the California Standards Test and on the California High School Exit Exam. If they fail to show adequate progress two years in a row, they gain “Program Improvement” status and face increasing sanctions for each year of PI.
» Year One: School or district must notify parents, set aside 5 percent of school funds for teacher training, revise school plan to address problems.
» Year Two: School or district must notify parents, implement plan developed in year one, continue funding set-asides.
» Year Three: Corrective action begins, including implementing new curriculum, replacing staff, decreasing management, extending school day or year, or school restructuring.
» Year Four: School must develop alternative governance plan, replace most or all staff (including principal), contract with an outside agency to manage the school, or allow a state takeover.
» Year Five: School must implement restructuring plan created in Year Four.