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Stuck in a race against time to prime high schoolers fresh to the United States for the high school exit exam, Jessica Vargas and her fellow teachers realized that simple books meant for small children wouldn’t cut it.

So they stepped it up.

San Ysidro High School, in the sparse, industrial stretches of Otay Mesa, took the books and readings meant for English learners at the advanced level and gave them to students in the middle level this year. They handed the middle books to kids in the basic level. And so on.

Teens once would have been assigned a simple picture book with painted illustrations and a single sentence on each page. Now, they are given paperbacks loaded with complex sentences like, “The short blade was curved like a scythe, its fat wooden handle fitting snugly in her palm.”

“I remember reading child stories,” said Jacqueline Delgado, now graduating from San Ysidro High after three years in the country. “Then this year, there were no pictures. Just writing. It was very difficult. I was scared.”

Now high schoolers such as Delgado at the top levels read the Diary of Anne Frank and talk about genocide. The idea was to challenge students sooner with tougher but still accessible readings that also sparked their interest — something that can be vexing with teens whose English is thin. Even finding books that are easy enough for English learners but interesting to teenagers is a challenge.

Schools weren’t strictly required to use the easier books that San Ysidro High once used, but the same books had been used so often that the Sweetwater Union High School District based tests on them. It became second nature that the newest students would read about Ferdinand the bull.

Now the tougher texts allow for deeper discussions in English than childish tales of talking bats or a bull who won’t fight.

“What do we call it if people say, ‘I’m not going to follow those rules — I’m going to act out and cause problems?’” Vargas asked one classroom of teens as they pored over the pages of The Giver. “What is that called?”

“Boycott?” one boy guessed.

“That’s more specific,” Vargas said.

“Dictatorship?”

Vargas shook her head.

“Revolution?” another teen offered.

Later as they pondered the painless imaginary world in the book, one boy read haltingly from his journal, “If I didn’t know anything about the past everyone can repeat the same errors that they do.”

Early data from San Ysidro High are promising.

English learners were far more likely to pass the exit exam this year than the year before. Their passing rates on the English section jumped from 39 percent to 79 percent.

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Amping up reading, like San Ysidro High has done, is just one promising practice being tested in the Sweetwater district.

English learners are the only group of students in Sweetwater that have missed No Child Left Behind testing targets in both English and math, putting them under schools’ microscope. So Sweetwater is beefing up classes for English learners.

For instance, the district has already created new, tailored classes for the teens that some teachers call “lifers.” Those are the English learners who have spent a long time in the United States but still flounder in English because they never got the basics when they were younger.

Such students are actually the norm. Roughly four out of five English learners in Sweetwater schools have spent more than six years in the country.

Those special lessons, called sheltered classes, are meant to ensure English learners are getting the same information as any student, but tailored to their learning styles.

On a recent day in science class at Mar Vista High, teens acted out how nervous signals flit to the brain and used clay to model dendrites.

“What are neurons?” their teacher, Erin Ashley, asked them, enunciating clearly.

“Brain cells,” one girl said.

“Complete sentences please,” Ashley replied.

“I think they are brain cells,” the girl elaborated.

So far, the sheltered classes seem to have worked. Sweetwater has seen English learners in sheltered classes outperform English learners in ordinary classes taught in English. Now the school district is also planning to change how English classes work for a different group of English learners: Newcomers like the teens Vargas teaches in San Ysidro High, who have a firm education in their native language but lack English.

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Vargas and many other teachers are suspicious of those changes, which seem to blur the line between lifers and newcomers.

The planned shift is small but pivotal: Newcomer students in the highest echelons, who now spend two hours with the same teacher learning English, will spend one of those hours in an ordinary English class or the sheltered English classes the lifers take.

Curriculum director Maria Castilleja sees it as a way to ensure that English learners get a better shot at the meat of English classes, dissecting text and understanding novels. The switch will also ensure that newcomers can earn more credits toward college, said Oscar Medina, who oversees language programs.

What divides Vargas and the school district is how to raise the bar. For her students, a tougher book was one simple tool to do it.

“We know our kids deserve to be challenged,” she said. “If we’re going to press them to pass the high school exit exam, we can’t keep handing them a picture book.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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