A program designed to boost weak test scores among non-native English speakers is being rolled out by the .
The program, called Keystone, has been tested at and for two years and is in its first year of a districtwide expansion. Under the new plan—approved by the school board in January—all teachers will be trained to teach English newcomers.
“We need to change how we think about educating students, especially [non-native] students. We need to meet their needs in the regular, core curriculum,” said Julie Hatchel, assistant superintendent of education services.
For two years, Capo’s English learners have not hit their goal on the Academic Performance Index, a way to measure mastery of English and mathematics.
In the most , the 5,662 English-learning students scored an API of 713. Overall, district students have an average score of 862. While the English learners’ recent score was 10 points above their previous showing, the improvement was not enough to avoid scrutiny. The goal is for the English learners to score an 800.
School officials said the new instructional model includes new, comprehensive curriculum, better communication with parents and better communication among teachers and administrators. With the new curriculum also comes new training for all teachers, including peer coaching.
Also new are regular meetings of English-language-development teachers from different schools. It will take three years for the district to fully convert to the new plan.
The biggest change may be that now all teachers are considered English-language teachers, said Hatchel. “In the past, our approach was a pullout approach,” meaning that English newcomers left their regular classes to receive specific help in language acquisition. But that method saw the students falling behind in the classes from which they were pulled.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, when school districts under-perform for two years straight, they are placed on “program improvement,” meaning they have to come up with a plan to address their shortcomings.
It normally takes students five to seven years to acquire a second language, said Amy Bryant, director of curriculum and instructional support for Capistrano Unified. But even as students leave the program to take regular classes, they are still 1½ to two years behind native English speakers.
Capistrano Unified is hardly alone. It might boast the highest API scores in the 15 largest school districts in the state, but English learners in every one of those districts are also struggling to meet their achievement goals. The same is true in 21 of 31 school districts in Orange County.
An analysis of the testing data shows that 44 percent of English learners in Capo Unified have been labeled as such for six years or more. Of this group, 10 percent are still considered beginners, with 43 percent falling in the intermediate level.
“They’re almost like a hidden population,” said Capo parent Carlos Solorzano, a Spanish teacher at who once headed the English-learner-development program at Montclair High School.
English learners are spread throughout the district, Bryant said. While the southern areas may see more Spanish-speaking students, in Aliso Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita/Coto de Caza, English learners are more apt to speak Asian languages, Farsi or Russian as a first language, she said.
At the middle school and high school level, English learners are placed in specific classes for learning English but are in regular, English-based classes for science, mathematics and electives. It is at the secondary level where Capo students have especially struggled, according to district data.
English learners who start in elementary school have much more difficulty as they move up to middle and high schools, according to district data. The achievement gap between them and their English-speaking counterparts starts to grow in fifth grade. And it’s not just the language acquisition that suffers. English learners have a tougher time in math as well, says the data.
When it comes time to taking the California High School Exit Exam, only 36 percent of the English learners pass the English portion, and 48 percent pass the math portion, according to district data.
“Teachers really like the writing program,” Bryant said. It places equal weight on fiction and nonfiction reading so that the students learn the academic vocabulary needed for other disciplines, such as science and math.
Communicating with parents of English learners is also part of the plan, Bryant said. The district has hired some bilingual liaisons to communicate with the parents, but still need to hire about 20 more.
“Not everyone knows the system. Not everyone knows how to advocate for their children,” Bryant said. That’s where the bilingual liaison comes in. Currently, 30 schools have a bilingual liaison, and the district is searching for 20 more.
“We also want to bridge the gaps culturally with the PTA groups. The liaison can help them with that. They’re a part of the community, and we need them,” Bryant said.
Solorzano, who recently with Superintendent Joseph Farley to learn about the changes for the English learners, works with CREER, a local group that seeks to strengthen educational opportunities and develop leadership in the Latino community. He believes Capo’s plan is missing a key component: literacy in the English learners’ first language.
“It’s not about speaking” your first language, Solorzano said. “If you are not literate in your first language, you won’t be literate in the second language.” Years of research from noted linguists Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California bear this out, he said.
Solorzano realizes he may be going against the dominant public opinion. In 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227, an initiative to end bilingual education in the state, by a large margin.
“No offense to Orange County, but they don’t have a clue,” Solorzano said.
"The law states that all students must be taught overwhelmingly in English," Bryant said. However, the district does offer various options, including the and Spanish for Spanish-speakers.
The district has found that English-learners in the "two-way" program outperform students in the English-only programs on standardized testing, Hatchel said. The program, whose goal was to fill the classrooms with 50 percent native English speakers and 50 percent Spanish speakers, will be adjusted in fall to accommodate 60 percent Spanish speakers.
"Parents do get a choice, however, as to the type of program/support their child receives," Bryant said.
The Capistrano Unified board of trustees will hear a more detailed description of the plan at its April 11 meeting.