Alexis Rodriguez has gone to California schools since kindergarten. The 13-year-old jokes with other kids in English between lessons. Some of his classmates groan when asked to write in Spanish.

They don’t look like the English learners you might imagine when the phrase pops up, the kids new to the country and struggling to speak English at all. Most of them have spent at least five years in the United States. And yet Rodriguez and his classmates are still grappling with English fluency.

Nearly 40 percent of English learners in San Diego Unified fail to become fluent by the time they reach middle school. Now, schools are starting to eye them, zeroing in on what holds them back.

They’re called “long-term English learners,” students who still fall short of fluency after five or six years in U.S. schools. Like Rodriguez and his classmates, they can gab easily in English, but run into trouble with more sophisticated reading and writing in school. They make up almost 60 percent of English learners in California middle and high schools, one study found, belying the idea that newcomers are the big problem.

Pacific Beach Middle School is testing one way to tackle their needs, a way that might seem odd at first glance. To help seventh and eighth graders who still struggle with English, it is bulking up their skills in both Spanish and English. They take an extra class that teaches them Spanish vocabulary and grammar, then ties it back to what they’re learning in English.

The idea is that once tweens better understand the grammar and structure behind Spanish, they can better translate that savvy to English. Principal Julie Martel and her teachers found that many of their students who were behind in English were also weak in Spanish, even though they speak it at home. Most had never been schooled in Spanish at all.

“They’re illiterate in their native language,” Martel said.

When the kids are coaxed to write in Spanish, some drop the “h” off “hacer” and spell “que” as “ke.” Many shy from writing at all. In both Spanish and English, their vocabulary stops short of the academic words that pepper textbooks, words like “conduct” or “complex.”

“It’s as if their Spanish skills fossilize at about age six or seven,” said Jill Kerper Mora, associate professor emerita at the School of Teacher Education at San Diego State University.

While scholars have tied English learners’ woes to everything from social segregation to inattention to writing to an inconsistent curriculum, some of them argue that cutting out kids’ first language has only worsened the problem. They argue that children miss out on key lessons in grammar and vocabulary while struggling to simply understand English — especially if they don’t hear a lot of advanced words in their native tongue at home either.

So the Pacific Beach class teaches ideas in both languages to help them catch up. For instance, teacher Graciela Rosas introduced an idea in English that was already familiar to kids — verbs — and then taught them how verbs worked in Spanish. Building their understanding in Spanish, in turn, is supposed to help them understand more difficult ideas about English verbs that stymied them in class.

“I didn’t know how to write much in Spanish or to read. Now I know,” said Rogelio Baldovinos, an eighth grader who said all his classes were in English in elementary school. “And I write better in English too.”

Rodriguez is enthusiastic too. “You find words you don’t understand in Spanish. Then you define it in English. Then you do a summary in Spanish,” he said. “It’s like a Spanish class that’s mixed with English.”

Honing their skills in Spanish is also supposed to build kids’ confidence. And if it works, it could be a kind of academic jujitsu: turning the problem of struggling with two tongues into the asset of being biliterate.

Empowering kids with two languages rings true for Rosas, who remembers being a bilingual kid lost in middle school herself. If they can taste success in Spanish, she hopes, they might keep trying in English too. Lessons in Spanish reveal that kids sometimes don’t understand the structure behind the tongue.

“Why does salir change to sales? Why does it change completely?” Rosas asked her class.

“Because salir is future and sales is present?” one boy said hesitantly.

“Does that make sense to you?” Rosas asked him gently.

He furrowed his eyebrows. “No.”

It seems amazing that children could spend six years in schools where English is spoken and not be fluent. Kerper Mora believes the problem is built into middle schools. Children usually need five to seven years to become fluent. But when they hit middle school, she said, classes assume they already know how to read and write. The curriculum races ahead while they try to catch up.

The stakes are especially high because middle school is a painful crossroads. Educators can easily predict whether middle schoolers will be equipped for college. Kids also carve out their identities.

“Their academic futures are determined by how well they do in middle school,” said Aida Walqui, who trains teachers to help English learners with WestEd, an education nonprofit. “And that’s when kids can decide, ‘I’m going to go to university’ or they can decide to join gangs.”

Schools have long grappled with how to improve English learners’ scores; poor results can put them in hot water under No Child Left Behind even if the rest of the school is doing well. But zeroing in on long term learners is relatively rare. Martel, a longtime principal, said she had never even heard the term until she read a New York study about them — a study that itself laments the lack of studies on long term English learners. Yet they are a fact of life.

“This is something that I’ve always seen, these students that are stuck,” said Wade Plunkett, a English learner support teacher at Pacific Beach and Correia middle schools. “It hasn’t changed.”

Elsewhere in San Diego County, some schools have paved the way: Sweetwater schools estimate roughly four out of five English learners there are “lifers” and crafted a specific set of classes for them. Escondido Union High School District got statewide attention for tailoring classes to long term English learners’ needs.

But those programs are still rare.

The Pacific Beach teachers and principal said they dreamed up their program by reading the research and examining kids’ records, but they have no blueprint for the class, no book to refer to. School district staffers said they knew of no other San Diego schools taking this tack.

It’s too early to tell if the class will work. But Rosas is heartened to see that only one of her students is failing English class, instead of the typical eight or nine. And small things seem to promise progress.

Martel was wowed to see kids who sit wordlessly in other classes flinging their hands up to answer. They toggle from English to Spanish and back, creating sentences about action movies and Celine Dion.

“Just seeing them want to come to class is huge,” Rosas said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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