Lucha program helps immigrant students beat challenges of new land and language
Ryan Holeywell | The Monitor
February 25, 2008
Donna High School senior Sergio Barrientos knew almost no English when he moved here from Reynosa two years ago.
But this spring, he’ll graduate from high school and join the U.S. Navy.
District officials point to Barrientos as an example of the power of Lucha, a new online program that caters to recent immigrant students and is making waves across the state.
“With the help of Lucha, I’m a senior,” Barrientos said.
The program allows recent students who have emigrated from Mexico to take online courses in their native language and earn high school credit in Texas.
Proponents of Lucha, which means fight, hope the program will help address the struggle immigrant students face when they are forced to try to understand classes taught in a language they barely understand.
“The challenge of these students was a double whammy,” said Felipe Alanis, a former Texas Education Agency chief who pioneered the program two years ago. “You not only have to learn the language, you have to learn the content.”
Generally, bilingual education is not required in Texas secondary schools. Students are instead placed in English as a Second Language programs in which the classes are taught in English.
Lucha is a supplement to ESL, not a replacement, and students using the software continue to receive classroom instruction in English, Alanis said.
Barrientos, who took a Spanish Lucha class in economics last year, said that back then there is no way he could have understood the course if it had been taught in English.
“What was happening is these children did not speak English and they were being placed in content area courses — science and math — in English,” said Ofelia Gaona, bilingual director at Donna school district, which implemented Lucha last year.
“They were not successful.”
The program was initially developed by the Mexican government under President Vicente Fox as a way to help that country’s adult population earn high school degrees online.
But Alanis, associate dean of the K-16 Education Center at University of Texas at Austin, said he realized the program could be useful in Texas, where districts struggle to find ways to better serve the growing immigrant population.
There are about 732,000 Texas students with limited English proficiency in Texas, Alanis said. About 90 percent of those students, known as LEPs, are primarily Spanish speakers. Nationwide, there are about 5 million students with limited English skills, said Stanford University education professor Claude Goldenberg.
LEP students are not performing nearly as well as their peers. According to the TEA, 84 percent of the state’s students in the class of 2007 passed their exit-level standardized TAKS tests. LEPs passed at less than half that rate.
The graduation rate is also low for LEPs. Statewide, more than 80 percent of students in the class of 2006 graduated. Less than 50 percent of LEP students did.
Experts partially attribute those figures to a long-standing policy that places most high school-aged immigrants in ninth grade, regardless of how much schooling they’ve had in Mexico.
“They feel even though (they) still have had high school in Mexico, it’s going to take (them) another four years to get through high school here,” said Marcia Niemann, an ESL teacher at Adamson High School in Dallas, where Lucha was implemented a few weeks ago. “They find it frustrating and leave.”
Now, as part of Lucha, Alanis’ staff locates and analyzes students’ transcripts from their original Mexican high schools to determine whether they can get Texas credit for courses they’ve taken back home.
“We didn’t know their system,” said Alanis, a native of the Rio Grande Valley. “We generally didn’t give them much credit for whatever they brought with them.”
Donna implemented the program midway through last school year. It was initially funded with grant money, which also paid for laptops with Sprint wireless cards so students could even do Lucha work online from home.
This year, the district enrolls about 150 students in Lucha at a cost of $100,000. More than half the district’s students have limited English skills.
The program is already used in 17 Texas school districts, including Edcouch-Elsa and PSJA. Brownsville schools got the program last month, the San Benito district a few weeks ago and Roma administrators are considering adding it.
Alanis said there have been different attempts at programs similar to Lucha in Oregon and Washington, but those have been at a smaller scale.
Critics of bilingual education argue that by continuing to teach immigrants in their native tongue, schools foster a cycle of dependency on Spanish that ultimately inhibits progress at English proficiency.
Peter Duignan, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a public policy research center, maintains that bilingual education programs have proven to fail and slow assimilation into American society.
Other researchers disagree.
“There’s a lot of reason to believe using the primary language (Spanish) is not only beneficial for maintaining the primary language — but beyond that — promoting academic skills in the second language,” Goldenberg said.
Alanis said Lucha does not replace English education but helps ease the transition.
Most students don’t take more than two Lucha courses and few stay on Lucha for more than a year. Like their peers, Lucha students must pass the state’s TAKS tests, which are administered in English, to graduate.
Boston University professor Christine Rossell, who studies bilingual education, said she doesn’t think Lucha will work, especially since the students will take tests in English.
“They’re going to have to eventually teach them English… why not do it from the get-go?” Rossell said. “Even though it’s initially harder in English, it’s worth it.”
She said Lucha students may be inclined to “tune out” English instruction if they know they can rely on Lucha Spanish courses. She also disagreed with the theory that content learned in one language can easily be translated into another.
“This is one of the most confused thoughts that the supporters of bilingual education have,” Rossell said.
Alanis said he is aware the program may have its critics.
But, he said, even though the students are learning in Spanish, the goal is to teach them English as quickly as possible.
“On the surface level, (Lucha) sounds counterintuitive. If I’m taking a class in Spanish, how will I ever learn English?” he said. “But the stronger the vocabulary in the Spanish language, the faster they’re able to transition to a second language.”
Alanis said despite the program’s costs — about $400 to $500 per student — it saves districts money in the long run by not forcing them to use school resources on courses already taken in Mexico. Alanis said that totals $1,100 in savings to districts for each Mexican school credit Lucha administrators approve.
As for concerns about Texas students using resources developed in concert with Mexico, Alanis said the courses have been aligned to meet Texas standards.
Alanis said he doesn’t have the data yet to determine the extent of the program’s success, but a Houston firm is in the process of analyzing Lucha to determine exactly that. Gaona said in Donna, 55 of 61 high school students on Lucha passed their end-of-course tests last semester. Before Lucha, that would have been unheard.
“What we’re finding is a lot of the children have more interest in school and better self-esteem because they are successful,” Gaona said.
Alanis said that, in his mind, Lucha is a no-brainer.
“For all intents and purposes, I’d rather have a student that is bi-literate than a dropout.”