Sunday, June 15, 2008

Most struggling Texas kids are veterans of U.S. classrooms

By KATHERINE LEAL UNMUTH / The Dallas Morning News
June 10, 2008

Educators often point out the obstacles new immigrants face in graduating on time. But they aren't the only kids learning English who are struggling to graduate.

Statewide, about 60 percent of high school students classified as having limited English proficiency – called LEP in education circles – have been in U.S. schools five years or more, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of state test data.

Most were born in the United States, often to immigrant parents, or immigrated at an earlier age. While some do well in school, others struggle for years.

Experts say this can happen for several reasons. Some children get poor bilingual or English as a second language instruction in early grades. Some students change schools often because their families move around. They may get classes taught mostly in Spanish at one school, mostly in English at the next and bilingual classes at a third.

Such students get to high school way behind. In Irving, several hundred LEP high school students are taking reading classes because they still read at an elementary level. "They can say the words, but they don't know what it means," reading coordinator Paula Dugger said.

Many LEP students can speak conversational English without having mastered the vocabulary necessary to understand textbooks or to pass the graduation TAKS exams. "It's not that they don't know English," said Isabella Piña-Hinojosa, bilingual director in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district. "They need a teacher to help them understand the academic language."

Because that puts LEP students at risk of dropping out, advocates say more services focused on English literacy are needed.

Texas opens high school ESL classes only to immigrants. The state sets no restriction on how long they have lived in the U.S., though some districts limit the classes to recent arrivals. Most other students classified as still learning English, including those born in the U.S., take regular courses.

Schools are supposed to supplement those regular classes with services designed to make sure students understand the work. But those services can vary widely from school to school.

"One problem is the programs are all so different," said Yvonne Freeman, a bilingual education professor at the University of Texas-Brownsville.

David Freeman, a bilingual education professor at UT-Brownsville, said principals and all teachers should be trained to work with students learning English.

"Biology or math teachers don't really pay as much attention to the language needs of the kids," he said. "They don't see themselves as reading or writing teachers."

Dr. Piña-Hinojosa tracks students in her district who have been in the country more than four years separately from those who arrived more recently to assess how each group progresses academically. She believes the state should use a similar approach.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund lost a federal lawsuit last year in which it argued that the state often provided an inferior education for students with limited English, particularly in middle and high schools. Plaintiffs also argued that the state failed to monitor programs adequately for quality.

"Many students have been in the program for a number of years and are still performing at very low levels," MALDEF attorney David Hinojosa said. "That's where the tragedy truly lies."

Georgina Gonzalez, bilingual director at the Texas Education Agency, said the state is trying to provide more training for secondary teachers. But she acknowledges TEA has not closely analyzed data based on when students arrived. She said officials are working on a new data system.

"If we find out how they are doing," she said, "then we could address their needs and bring attention to how many students we have in that situation."

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