The Learning Curve is a weekly, jargon-free column that answers questions about education. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


I was a first-year teacher, in over my head.

With no formal training– and little preparation of any kind – I stepped into a classroom at a school for juvenile offenders. Students didn’t choose to come to my class. The state of Colorado mandated they be there.

It was a difficult school to work in. Teachers cycled in and out. That’s the reason I got the job: The school was short-handed and looking for a warm body with a college degree. I applied for an emergency teaching credential, which allowed me to work so long as I enrolled in night classes to learn how to actually be a teacher.

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Every student in class had committed a serious, sometimes violent, crime. Students spent the days in classrooms, like typical teenagers, then returned each night to their bunks at the opposite side of campus.

These students had seen a lot. Most grew up in poverty. Many suffered extreme physical and abuse. They joined gangs, because that’s what their father did and their grandfather, too.

I remember one student, a brooding 17-year-old named Tate, who sat in the back of the class and read Harry Potter when the rest of the class was working. Tate had surgery just before he entered my class because a rival gang member walked up to him and shot him in the mouth when he was pumping gas in east Denver.

These students needed the most skilled and qualified teachers who could support them emotionally and academically. Instead they got me. And I was scrambling to get by.

One day, a 15-year-old student named Gonzalez, transferred into my class. He spoke little English – certainly not enough keep up with the rest of the class. That wasn’t uncommon – I had several Spanish-speakers in class already.

But Gonzalez presented a new challenge: He spoke little English, but he was illiterate in Spanish, too. He couldn’t write his name because he didn’t know the alphabet.

Nothing in my experience had equipped me to help Gonzalez. We had no common language on which to build lessons. Even if I could spend all my time in class focused solely on Gonzalez, I would have had no long-term strategies to offer. Several weeks later, when he transferred out of my class, I was relieved.

I stopped teaching about a year later. But I often think about Gonzalez and what I could have done to help him. This week, I’m going to try to answer my own question.

Question: What should teachers do when students are illiterate in two languages?

Conor Williams, a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program, said kids like Gonzalez represent a kind of worst-case scenario for teachers. That is, by the time he entered class he had so little education, and was so far behind, that he wasn’t able to access information like native-speakers.

Gonzalez’s experience is hardly unique. Thousands of students just like him step into California classrooms every year. And data from the California Department of Education shows that the state has long struggled to help them.

Statewide, English-learners have some of the lowest graduation rates and highest dropout rates of any student group. In San Diego Unified, fewer English-learners are expected to graduate in 2016 than are students who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities.

Olympia Kyriakidis, a former principal who is now leading work around equity for the San Diego County Office of Education, says the first step in supporting English-learners is understanding what students know in their native language: Can they write at all? How many years of school have they had? All of these factors matter for how quickly students pick up English.

“The first step is understanding what the students do come with,” said Kyriakidis.

Research shows it takes about four to seven years, on average for students to reach full proficiency in English. Students who have been in American schools for six or more years and still haven’t mastered English are considered long-term English-learners. There are roughly 5,500 of these students in San Diego Unified.

We might assume it’s easy to spot students in class who struggle with English. But research suggests that some English-learners have perfected the ability to fly undetected. They might be quiet or well-behaved in class. Maybe they seem highly functional when they speak English with friends, but their grades reveal that they’re not comprehending class material.

Joe Austin, principal at Hoover High, said that in the past it wasn’t uncommon for teachers to be unaware they had students in class struggling with English. He remedied this by making sure teachers have student data in-hand by the time they enter class.

The goal for English-learning students is to be “reclassified” as fluent in English, which happens if students make enough progress on a yearly test.

Reclassification is a crucial moment. Once students are reclassified, they have more access to rigorous college-prep material because they don’t have to spend time in classes where they focus exclusively on learning English. (The rub is that after they reclassify, students won’t have as much language support, and some students backslide.) And, unfortunately, some students are never able to reclassify.

The central task for those teaching English-earners is how to help students overcome the two-pronged challenge of learning a new language while trying to master academic content like math, science and history.

It’s a balancing act: Language is the cornerstone of all subjects. Push students into challenging content too soon, without enough support, and you risk isolating the students in classes whose content they don’t understand.

Yet, if schools isolate English-learning students in separate classes until they’re considered fluent, they’ll miss academic content and fall further behind their peers.

It’s not easy to find the sweet spot. Few schools in San Diego do it well. But Kearny High in Linda Vista may offer some valuable lessons.

Last year, I opened a story about English-learners at Kearny by zooming in on the success of one student, Ángel Solorzano. When he arrived at school he spoke no English. Yet, the following year he jumped into AP classes. Ultimately he made it to UC Santa Cruz on a full-ride scholarship.

It’s a feel-good anecdote that reminds us to hold onto high expectations. But what I didn’t get into was the fact that even though Solorzano didn’t speak English, he already had a solid education before he arrived at Kearny. His principal, Ana Diaz-Booz, knew he was capable of jumping right into a mainstream classes because she speaks Spanish and assessed him in his native language.

But even with Solorzano’s capacity, Diaz-Booz didn’t toss him sink-or-swim into a mainstream classes.

She placed him into classes that were designed, in part, for students like him: Teachers stressed the academic language that many non-native speakers miss. Solorzano’s teachers built into classes frequent opportunities to speak – and they consciously tried to create a welcoming environment so students weren’t too embarrassed to talk.

That work showed up in test scores. English-learners at Kearny scored higher on standardized tests than English-learners in any other district high school.

This isn’t to say that every school in San Diego can or should try to replicate the exact structure of Kearny High school. But the strategies employed at Kearny are at the heart of San Diego Unified’s plan to better serve English-learners.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

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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