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At the beginning of May, parents and teachers filed into a stuffy conference room at City Heights’ Mann Middle School.

Word spreads quickly through this tight-knit group of parents. The latest news was that changes were coming to New Arrival Centers, programs the district runs at schools that have high populations of newly arrived immigrants.

Many in the room feared the worst: that San Diego Unified would be closing its New Arrival Centers and students who don’t speak English would be thrust, sink or swim, into regular courses.

That’s not what’s happening. But, partly due to a change in funding, partly out of a desire to accelerate learning for immigrant students and refugees, the centers will have a faster-moving curriculum and likely some new teachers.

For a newly arrived immigrant, programs like these serve as a kind of stepping stone to life in America.

There are eight New Arrival Centers across the district, where groups are usually small, but fluctuate in number. A high school might start the year with 30 students in the New Arrival Center, but lose students throughout the year as they make progress and leave the program.

The small-group setting creates a kind of cocoon for students to take language classes and learn basic, academic content. Refugee children may have unique needs due to the trauma they’ve experienced or the years of school they’ve missed.

But this sort of safe haven, where students have time to grow, is at odds with the district’s current push to maintain high graduation rates.

In other words, supporting students’ emotional needs is important, but the faster students make it out of New Arrival Centers, the closer they’ll be to graduation.

Right now, district officials are deciding which one to prioritize here.

Learning in Isolation

Next week, district officials plan to announce exactly how the New Arrival Centers will change.

But principals and teachers say it’s likely students will move sooner into regular classes that count toward graduation, because they’ll spend half as long learning basic English before they’re placed in regular classes.

Nobody expects new arrivals to become proficient in English in three semesters, which is about how much time the new, accelerated plan would give them. Even though students will move sooner into regular classes, the idea is to offer students enough support, by way of classroom aides or modified lessons, so they’ll succeed.

Kris Larsen, who teaches at San Diego High’s New Arrival Center, is not so sure. She says the plan would set kids up for failure.

She’s got good reason to believe so. Research shows it takes, on average, five to seven years for students to reach full proficiency in another language.

Larsen said she worked with new arrivals for a whole semester, getting them ready to take a regular Algebra class in the spring. But when the class started, Larsen realized that even with the extra preparation, students were falling short.

“They are almost all still failing. I’m not convinced that they’re ready for whatever the district might have planned for them,” Larsen said at the meeting.

Students in New Arrival Centers are getting much-needed attention in a welcoming environment. But they’re also spending more time learning English in isolation with other new arrivals (which, research shows, isn’t a particularly effective way at learning a new language).

Where does support end and segregation begin?

‘It’s Another Blow’

Two years ago, up against a looming budget shortfall, Superintendent Cindy Marten made a decision that fundamentally changed the way English-learner support teachers served students.

ELSTs, as they’re called, work one-on-one with English-learners in schools and help mainstream teachers make the material more accessible to students with limited English.

Today, the district still uses ELSTs, but now they float between schools, as needs arise. And there are fewer of them.

It wasn’t the change that necessarily bothered Gabriela Contreras-Misirlioglu, a parent with children in the San Diego High cluster. It was the fact the decision was made swiftly, with little input from parents.

Contreras- Misirlioglu sees what’s happening to the New Arrival Centers as a repeat of what happened two years ago.

“It’s another blow,” she said. “You ask me, Mario, why more parents do not get involved. This is why. We find child care and come to meetings. We give our input and jump through hoops. And then we’re disregarded.”

A handful of teachers and counselors came to the meeting at Mann to advise against changes to the New Arrival Centers.

Some said that they too felt disregarded even though they’ve worked closely with new arrivals for years.

It’s a point that teachers union president Lindsay Burningham seized on during a public meeting.

“Our members are experts in their field, they have done this for years, and their voices are not being listened to. Decisions are being made by staff at the district office who have not stepped foot into our classrooms or been in charge of a classroom or helping meet the needs of students,” Burningham said.

What Extra Funding?

In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown radically changed the way California school districts were funded. Instead of getting money that could only be spent on specific services, districts would get money in a big pot. Districts would not only get more money – they also got more flexibility on how to spend it.

The major selling point of the plan was to get more money to the neediest students, and to include accountability checks to make sure money was being spent properly and efficiently.

But making progress has proved more difficult than expected, especially when it comes to English-learners and students with special needs.

What’s confusing to parents of English-learners in San Diego Unified is that during the time they were supposed to start seeing more money, they’ve seen their teachers shuffled, and their services trimmed.

None of this is to suggest the district is withholding money or misspending funds. Or even that the change to the New Arrival Centers will be a cutback.

But parents are having to take on faith that the district is spending money appropriately. A lot of things they can touch and see are gone or quickly changing.

Mario Koran

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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