Parents at Hoover High don’t care why the only teacher at the school assigned specifically to help English learners is going away next year. They care about the impact: They don’t want their kids to be mediocre.

Hoover’s new principal, Joe Austin, had only been on the job a couple of months when he learned about the district’s plan to save money.

Instead of hiring new teachers to replace those who left or retired, Superintendent Cindy Marten made a last-minute call to move support teachers out of supplementary positions, and make lead classroom teachers out of them.

That’s what happened at Hoover. And that’s why about 12 parents crammed into a small, hot conference room on a Friday afternoon to hash it out with Austin. It’s hard to tell because they shuffle in and out. Some leave early, some arrive late – unable to get off work until now.

“Let’s start with an assumption,” Austin tells the parents, “that we’re all trying to make decisions that are in the best interest of kids. And I start there because I know that anybody who’s worked with the district for any length of times can list examples of how it doesn’t always feel that way.”

Austin pauses while an interpreter repeats the message in Spanish. There’s no interpreter here for the parent who speaks Vietnamese, but she says she knows enough to get the gist.

The distractions, the breaks in communication – it makes the meeting seem like a metaphor for how the district helps English learners in its schools.

When decisions are made at the district’s Normal Street headquarters, the impacts are felt in meeting rooms like this one all across San Diego.

In light of the changes – and because parents and students are often last to understand what they’ll actually mean – now is a good time to go through some of what’s at stake, not just for English learners, but for the district as a whole.

What’s an English learner (aside from the obvious)?

When parents enroll their children in school, they tell the district whether their children speak any language in the home besides English.

Of the roughly 132,000 students in San Diego Unified, about 29,000 – more than 1 in 5 – are English learners. Most are Spanish-speakers, but there are about 50 other languages spoken in the district, too.

Once students are enrolled, they take a test so the district knows how well they speak and understand English. This test, the California English Language Development Test, or CELDT, helps determine which classes and levels of support are the right fit.

English learners take the test once a year, until they’re “reclassified,” or considered fluent in the eyes of the district. That decision is based on test scores and recommendations from teachers.

Reclassification is a big deal. Once students are reclassified, they no longer take courses that focus primarily developing language skills, and have more time to spend on classes they can use for college or tech school.

After students are reclassified, the district follows them for two years to make sure they’re doing well academically.

My child speaks English. Why should I care about this?

Simply put: If students are struggling to learn English, and teachers need to devote more time to reach them, that means other students may get less attention.

And if students are struggling, they might disrupt the class out of frustration, a study by the Public Policy Institute of California warned.

What kinds of options do English learners have?

They vary by age and English-proficiency level, and range from separate programs for English-learners to plunking students into regular classrooms – where they might get extra learning support, but for the most part it’s sink or swim.

There are also dual-language programs at schools like Sherman Elementary, which blends classes in Spanish and English. Students here can learn from each other while being immersed in a new language.

Valentina Hernandez, who served four years as chair of a district advisory committee for English learners, prefers this option because it pushes students in both new and native languages. The problem, she says, is that there isn’t enough space for all the kids who would benefit.

Why do we need to serve English learners, anyway?

Because it’s the law. All students have the constitutional right to equal access to a quality education, and a series of court cases determined that bilingual education was part of that.

A 1981 case out of Texas, Castañeda v. Pickard, established a three-pronged test for making sure school districts offer a solid bilingual education program: They have to be based on sound educational theory, implemented effectively and the district has to be able to prove that students are making progress.  

So, how are English learners doing in San Diego Unified?

Not very well. At all.

English learners have the highest dropout rate, and one of the lowest graduation rates out of any group of students in the district.

Their most recent scores on the California Standards Test are unsettling: Only 7 percent of 11th grade English-learners scored proficient or better in language arts; only 6 percent were proficient in algebra.

The rates at which students are reclassified have remained stagnant since 2008. Last year, more than 6,400 were considered long-term English learners, meaning they’ve been in U.S. schools for six or more years and still haven’t been reclassified. Another 2,200 had been in U.S. schools for four or more years.

Austin, Hoover’s principal, said that ideally, students should be reclassified in three years.

So what’s up with the teacher shuffle?

The short answer is that fewer English learners will have a person at their school who’s specifically assigned to help them.

A branch of the district’s central office, the Office of Language and Acquisition, will try to pick up some of the tasks, like helping schools administer the language test.

The central office will also assign a staff member to specific schools, so they can act as a kind of point person.

Hernandez says support from the central office support won’t be enough, because they won’t actually be spending time in classrooms, working side by side with teachers and students.

Why did this happen?

Money. Or lack of it. Shuffling teachers was a last-minute move to balance the budget, but the decision was made quickly, and without any conversation from the schools that would be impacted.

In some ways, it was a smart move. On top of saving money, this will give support teachers a kind of baptism-by-fire in the new Common Core standards. This might make them more effective support teachers if they return to their previous positions.

Without laying off any other teachers, the other option would have been to sell off more district land. But that’s become increasingly controversial, and the district has pledged to find money in other ways.

So, who is going to support English learners in the classroom?

That’s a great question. Unfortunately, there’s not a great answer yet.

One principal said schools might not know until the beginning of the school year, once principals have a clear view of their resources and the work that needs to be done.

Austin said it might be a good thing: It will require teachers to know exactly which students are struggling with English. Instead of thinking that a support teacher is looking after the English learners, the lead teacher will now take a more active role.

Hernandez said that sounds great in theory, but isn’t optimistic teachers will able be able to meet the extra demands.

So is this a big, fat disaster waiting to happen?

There’s still time left before the school year starts for the district and individual schools to come up with a plan to meet the needs of English learners.

The fact is that while the recent teacher shuffle may not help the problem, English learners have already been struggling for years.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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