Successful language program is a drag on campus' scores
By Kim Minugh
Published: Monday, Jun. 09, 2008 | Page 1A
Nine buses lumber up to Will Rogers Middle School each morning, carrying sleepy-eyed children who have spent as much as an hour on the road.
They are the children of immigrant families from Argentina, South Korea, Mexico and Ukraine – enrolled at the Fair Oaks school for an opportunity to quickly learn the language of their new country.
Will Rogers is one of the San Juan Unified School District's language centers, offering specialized lessons to any seventh- or eighth-grader who isn't fluent in English.
This year, almost one-fourth of the school's English-language learners have become fluent enough to shift into mainstream classes – some after just a year.
But Will Rogers is failing under No Child Left Behind.
Because of its high concentration of non-English speakers, its scores on standardized English tests have come up short six years in a row, landing the school in the final stages of what the federal government calls "Program Improvement."
San Juan administrators find themselves in a quandary: Either continue a program they feel successfully serves English-language learners – and suffer the penalties of low test scores – or disband the program.
"It's a tough dilemma," said Vice Principal Karen Baum. "Technically, the district could get us out of Program Improvement by just not making us a (language) center. … Would that be the best thing for the kids? I don't know."
San Juan Unified officials will try to answer that question next year when they review the district's programs for English-language learners, including the language center model, said Tamra Taylor, the district's director of Program Improvement schools.
Taylor said the district will not "cower" from No Child Left Behind. The fate of the language center rests on what is best for English-language learners, she said, not pressure from the government.
"We pay attention to the law, we don't break the law, we try to make growth," she said. "But our impetus is not that there's a federal mandate called Program Improvement. Our impetus is there's an achievement gap, and we want to close it."
Schools are labeled Program Improvement when they fail to meet federal targets for two years in a row. Schools that continue to fall short of federal benchmarks for more than two years face additional sanctions and ultimately can be taken over by the state.
Culture of support
When Principal Monty Muller started at Will Rogers 18 years ago, the language center had only 40 students. Today, enrollment ranges from 160 to 280, and students speak 40 languages.
Grouping those students in language centers allows the district to save money on staffing, technology and other costs.
But perhaps the biggest advantage, administrators and teachers say, is a culture of support for students facing struggles in and out of the classroom.
Baum said many of her students are angry at their parents for bringing them to the United States against their will. Some act out.
Others have trouble focusing on school because their families are in turmoil while adjusting to a new country.
At the language center, teachers and administrators help students work through those emotional issues.
"I think it gives kids a feeling of comfort … and a feeling of safety," said teacher Michelle Bebout. "It gives them a million opportunities to relate to somebody."
Dariya Korzhuk, who came from Ukraine three years ago, appreciates being at a school full of other students like her – even if they don't share the same background.
"You already know how they feel because it's the same as you," the 13-year-old said.
Even after being in the United States two years, Korzhuk said she felt "shy to talk" when she came to Will Rogers.
"If I say something wrong, people would make fun," said the seventh-grader. "Now, I don't care. I know English."
Proper language required
During a recent lesson, Bebout asked her seventh-graders to write a letter to incoming students, giving them advice on how to succeed at Will Rogers and in her class.
She explained the instructions slowly, going over tough words and asking questions to make sure her students understood them.
Bebout paused when one student used the word "stuff" and talked to the class about the difference between slang and formal language.
"You are not employed by (Yo!) MTV Raps," she said, referring to the former hip-hop cable TV show. "What kind of language will you be avoiding?"
"Wazzup," the students shouted.
She wrote it on a whiteboard as students called out other forbidden words – "Cuz," "Shorty."
That language is OK for text-messaging, she told them. But Bebout wants her students to get in the habit of using proper language.
In a classroom across the hall, English teacher Laura Troppmann buzzed around the room in jeans and flats.
Her students were designing an imaginary camp for young children. The lesson was based on "The Acorn People," a book they'd read about physically disabled students who attended a camp without proper accommodations.
Troppmann has been at Will Rogers eight years, but this is her first year teaching English learners. She said there have been some unexpected challenges.
Her lesson about "The Acorn People" began with an explanation of what camp is; many of her students had never been.
When she asked them to design brochures for their imaginary camps, they stared back, blankly. No one knew what a brochure was.
"They're not dumb. They're brilliant," Troppmann said. "They just don't have the background."
Critics of No Child Left Behind complain that the law's expectations for English learners are unrealistic and that punishing entire schools for those students' struggles is unfair.
The federal law holds schools accountable for their overall test scores as well as for the scores of groups of typically underperforming students – like non-English speakers or ethnic minorities. A whole school can be penalized if one group repeatedly falls short, like at Will Rogers.
As California's immigrant population grows, and the above scenario becomes more common, even No Child Left Behind advocates like Taylor question the law's deadline for all students to be proficient in math and English.
"Can all kids be proficient by 2014? Let's get real," she said. "Especially if someone just got to the country and doesn't speak the language."
Standardized test scores don't show everything, she said. Especially at schools like Will Rogers.
Since 2002, the school has grown according to the state's measures – its Academic Performance Index score jumped 77 points to 715 (the state's goal for schools is 800).
In California, non-English speakers are tested yearly, and their English fluency is scored on a scale of one to five. Some of Will Rogers' students are jumping as many as two or three levels in one year, Baum said.
"I don't consider them a school that is failing," Taylor said.
Eighth-grader Lucas Sugliano, who didn't know any English when his family arrived 3 1/2 years ago from Argentina, is now considered fluent.
He remembers greeting people by saying, "bye" instead of "hi."
"I mostly learned English here" at Will Rogers, he said. "Difficult English. Hard words and better phrases."
In the fall, Sugliano will enter high school as what one of his classmates calls a "regular student."