Pacific Beach Middle School teacher Graciela Rosas teaches a class for students still gaining fluency in English despite spending five years or more in U.S. schools. / File photo by Sam Hodgson

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Choosing when to move students who are not native English speakers out of their language support program is a delicate decision. If it is done too soon, the student could begin to lose academic ground quickly. If it isn’t done soon enough, the student may languish behind for years.

Officials have placed special emphasis on moving students out of English-learner status as quickly as possible in San Diego Unified School District. A newly obtained memo sheds light on their strategy: Central office staff pushed principals “to reclassify a minimum of 75%” of eligible English-learners, according to documents obtained by Voice of San Diego through a Public Records Act request.

The memo was reviewed by state compliance officers, who recently found some of the district’s guidelines for reclassifying English-learners were too subjective and that the district was not adequately consulting with parents, as required by state law.

District officials said that although the memo spells out a specific minimum number of desired reclassifications, it should not be interpreted as a quota.

“The 75% target is a goal – not a quota,” Teresa Laskowski, the director of the district’s Office of Language Acquisition, wrote to board trustees last Friday, after I asked her to explain the memo on Thursday. “Our reason for setting this 75% goal was to set high expectations for our students and our schools. The target was selected as reasonable based on our past experience.”

The memo, which went out to principals in October of this school year, specifically reads: “You are encouraged to reclassify a minimum of 75% of your potential reclassification students before the [English-learner testing] window opens on Feb. 1, 2019.”

“The memo intentionally avoids use of words like ‘shall’ or ‘must,’” Laskowski wrote to the board last week.

But some see the 75 percent target as pressuring principals to reclassify students who may not be ready. (English-learners are students whose first language is not English. They receive special language support until they are “reclassified” as English-proficient.)

“It’s a problem,” said Lallia Allali, chair of the District English Learner Advisory Committee. “We shouldn’t specify the number of students to be reclassified. We should reclassify based on their progress.”

Reclassifying students who aren’t ready can be disastrous, said Allali. They might completely fall behind in primary subject areas, without the English language development support they received while in the program.

In recent years, district officials have publicly celebrated their push to reclassify more students. The district’s reclassification rate rose from 11 percent in 2015 to 17 percent in 2017, district spokeswoman Maureen Magee wrote to me earlier this month. The district has also significantly reduced the number of long-term English-learners – students who go six years or more without being reclassified – from roughly 5,700 in 2013 to roughly 2,700, Magee wrote.

But the state compliance officers implicitly raised doubts about those figures during their review earlier this year. They said teachers were not following objective guidelines for when to recommend a student for reclassification and would need to do so in the future to ensure that each reclassification meets state and federal standards.

“I’m sure the district wants those good metrics,” said Gabriela Contreras-Misirlioglu, a parent whose son was an English-learner. “But more than those metrics, we need to pay attention to English-learners’ academic performance.”

Last year, roughly 70 percent of English-learners graduated high school in San Diego Unified, compared with a districtwide graduation rate of roughly 87 percent.

Alberto Ochoa, who runs a Latino student advisory group and is a professor emeritus at San Diego State University where he researched student achievement, also thought spelling out a minimum of students to reclassify has a negative side. “It’s placing focus on how soon we can reclassify the student without considering the complicated reality of secondary language development,” he said.

In particular, Ochoa worried the target might push some English-learners to be reclassified when they have proficient social language ability, but not proficient academic language skills.

But he also thought the directive could be helpful for making sure English-learners aren’t forgotten. “On the positive side, it pushes people to focus on the English-learner,” he said.

For English-learners to be reclassified, four criteria must be met. They must pass the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California; be able to perform at a level comparable to English-only students on tests that measure academic performance; have a teacher’s recommendation; and their parent must be consulted.

This process begins with the social language test, better known by its acronym, the ELPAC. Students take it in the spring of each school year. Once they score above a certain threshold, they become eligible to be reclassified. Then a school can begin working to make sure a student meets the other criteria.

The district’s memo instructs principals to reclassify “a minimum of 75% of your potential reclassification students” – in other words, students who have already scored high enough on the ELPAC. It pushes principals to reclassify before the ELPAC window opens again in February, because once a district’s testing window opens any student who has not been reclassified must take the ELPAC again. If they don’t score high enough, they become ineligible for reclassification.

Some parents feel the district’s English-learner program has been in decline since cuts in 2014 led many schools to lose teachers specifically dedicated to language acquisition, said Contreras-Misirlioglu.

But board trustee Richard Barrera believes the district’s aggressive push to reclassify English-learners is helping them achieve more than ever. If any principal is watering down the standards for reclassification, he said that is the principal’s fault and not the fault of the 75 percent target memo. Barrera believes the purpose of the memo is to create urgency for principals to meet a reasonable goal.

“Setting a high standard for reclassifying kids I think does create a different conversation at these schools,” he said. “I think that’s a healthy thing.”

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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