Students head into Hoover High School. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

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Ask any official at San Diego Unified School District, and they’ll tell you what great strides the English-learner program has made in recent years. How the district is reclassifying students as English-proficient quicker than ever and not letting them languish behind.

But a new state report blasted the district for how it handles English-learner education. The report, obtained by Voice of San Diego through a Public Records Act request, says many students “are not receiving consistent, comprehensive instruction” in English language development or the kind of high-quality, in-classroom teaching that would help them succeed.

State investigators also dinged the district for not sticking to a high enough standard when reclassifying students out of English-learner status, not tracking their progress effectively and for problems in professional development, which is meant to help teachers gain the necessary skills to teach to English-learner students in the classroom.

District officials have been aware of the findings since early March, but they are now becoming public for the first time.

Roughly 26,000 San Diego Unified students, or 21 percent, qualify as English-learners, which means English isn’t their primary language and they haven’t developed proficiency. When an English-learner develops enough skills, they are reclassified out of the program, which is the goal for every English-learner student.

Students who get enough support to be reclassified tend to have much better outcomes.

“It’s not like this is something new for me. I know there are a lot of problems,” said Lallia Allali, a parent who chairs the District English Learner Advisory Committee. Even though no one showed Allali the report, she said she was aware of many of the problems it raised.

Based on meetings with teachers and principals, Allali had heard whispers that not all students were receiving state-mandated “English Language Development,” or ELD, instruction. (Some ELD instruction is supposed to take place in normal classes, and some is done during a special class for English-learners.) “But I didn’t have the evidence to prove it,” said Allali.

She asked the district to develop a system to help her committee evaluate whether schools are implementing ELD instruction.

“They told me the relationship needs to be based on trust. But I don’t believe in that concept. I believe people must be held accountable for what they are doing,” she said.

The California Department of Education looked into the district’s English-learner program as part of regular program monitoring conducted by the state. To get a window into the district’s practices, state investigators sampled eight schools: Hoover High, Morse High, Pacific Beach Middle, Clark Middle, Balboa Elementary, Euclid Elementary, Fay Elementary and Hamilton Elementary. Only Hamilton and Balboa did not have serious problems.

At the other six schools, state investigators found many students were not receiving the English-language instruction they needed to become proficient in English or to meet grade level standards. District students “are not consistently receiving academic instruction with sufficient strategies and differentiation to ensure [English-learners] meet the content and performance standards for their grade levels,” the report concluded.

In plain speak: English-learners in San Diego Unified aren’t getting the support they need to pass their classes and master the subjects they study.

During an overhaul of the program in recent years, the district significantly cut the number of staff dedicated to helping English-learner students. The remaining staff were moved from individual school sites to a central location. Instead of focusing on out-of-class instruction for English-learners, the district moved to a more integrated approach, meaning students would learn more English in general ed classes with their peers.

San Diego Unified officials have touted this approach as more effective. And when implemented effectively it can work, as it did at Kearny High. But the state’s findings offer some of the first evidence-based conclusions that suggest the changes are not being implemented well on a broad scale.

In particular, district officials often hold up statistics that show they are reclassifying more English-learner students as proficient in English instead of letting them fall into “long-term English-learner” status. (Long-term English-learners are people who have gone more than six years without becoming proficient in English.) Back in 2013-14 the district had roughly 5,700 long-term English-learners. Now it has around 2,700.

But the report cast some doubt on those figures. Students are supposed to be reclassified out of English-learner status when they meet certain testing benchmarks, after they are evaluated by their teachers and with parent involvement. But the report noted “the teacher evaluation criteria do not include objective guidelines” for when to transfer students. It also noted the district “does not adequately provide opportunities” for parent involvement.

Richard Barrera, the only San Diego Unified board member to identify as having a Latino background, said he found the findings “concerning,” but was not yet alarmed. He said he wanted to see how Superintendent Cindy Marten and her staff respond to the findings before rushing to judgment.

The district had 45 days to send an initial response to the state on each of its findings, which come as a result of regular monitoring conducted by the state to make sure local districts are in compliance with federal standards. After the findings, a back-and-forth process begins between the state and the district. The state’s ultimate goal is to ensure the district is in compliance with all its programs.

“Like with any audit and findings the district may come back and say we disagree,” said Barrera. “But if the district comes back and says you’re right … we haven’t been providing an adequate instruction then that moves from concerning to alarming.”

Barrera said he is willing to keep a wait-and-see attitude, because from the data he has seen the district has done exceptionally well with reclassified English-learners in particular.

“You bet, I’m going to have a couple of questions for [district staff] about this,” he said.

In a statement, the district’s spokeswoman Maureen Magee wrote, “The findings outlined in the March report from the [Department of Education] deserve to be taken seriously. San Diego Unified believes in using data as a flashlight — not a hammer.” District officials are continuing to work with the state to resolve the findings in the report, she wrote.

She also pointed to the district’s graduation rate for English-learners being above state average. Statewide, just 67.9 percent of English-learners graduated. In the district, 70.4 percent graduated.

“They keep saying they are doing good and all that they can to support English-learners, but as a parent I don’t see it that way,” said Allali, the committee chair. “I just don’t see that the district is doing everything possible to support English-learners.”

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at

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