Monday, August 27, 2007

Pescadero works to help English learners

Struggles with language affect other areas of study

By Julia Scott, STAFF WRITER / Inside

PESCADERO — In a school district where half the students are classified as English-language learners and more than 70 percent count English as a second language, classrooms throughout the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District have had to evolve to accommodate students with different levels of language ability.

And with the start of a new school year, the district has a new plan in place to raise English language test scores and encourage classroom participation by students whose parents have often just arrived from Mexico.

Pescadero is partly a migrant community, and children of farm workers often arrive at schools with little English and are shy about speaking up in class, said Tim Beard, district superintendent.

In time, the district's English Language Development classes get those students up to speed, but their comprehension in other core areas, such as math and science, also is influenced by the initial language barrier.

The students' struggles to learn English has affected the school district's overall academic performance in recent years. The district has been placed on "program improvement" status under the No Child Left Behind Act for its failure to meet academicbenchmarks in English-language performance over the past five years, said Beard.

"This is a larger issue of low performance. Students are falling behind," he said.

Patty Able, principal of both Pescadero Elementary and Middle schools, is putting a plan in place for a more rigorous, and more personalized, classroom learning environment for students learning English. In addition to attending a week's worth of English Language Development training for those who haven't yet received it, teachers will hold regular meetings to discuss the progress of English-language learners in their classrooms and the specific challenges they face.

To ensure that teachers have data to work from, the schools will install a new system of "benchmark" tests for English-language learners four times a year.

"Teachers will have some way of knowing whether students are progressing or not, rather than wait for the state data to show up at the end of the year," said Able.

"The goal is for teachers to know the students really well," added Beard. "You've got a spread of language abilities in the classes, so a teacher will need to use different strategies of instruction."

Some of those strategies include a move to incorporate English vocabulary words into daily classes and the use of small groups, called "peer coaching" to help young English learners feel more comfortable expressing themselves. Bilingual students often translate for Spanish speakers if necessary, which allows both languages to become incorporated in the learning process.

This classroom fluidity is something parents of native English speakers enjoy about the district, said Beard.

"We have parents who are very capable of taking their student to a private school. The reason they don't is that they want to expose their child to the other culture and to the other language."

The La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District isn't unusual in its high percentage of students classified as English learners. About 50 percent of students enrolled in the Redwood City Elementary District are so designated. The main difference is in the size of its student body.

Redwood City Elementary schools have just over 8,500 students; the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District has a total of 400 students and nearly 200 of them are English learners, according to the California Department of Education.

Part of the problem is that many of the students who struggle in English go home to parents who speak only Spanish and can't help them with their homework, said Beard.

The district introduced an after-school program last year to help kids with homework. One of Beard's long-term goals is to introduce a "parent training" program that will teach parents how to support their children through the learning process.

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at 650-348-4340

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