by Alexandra Babiarz | Contributor, Neon Tommy USC/Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism | http://bit.ly/s0gLna
October 25, 2011 - The Los Angeles Unified School District is failing to provide equal education to students learning English, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
About 195,000 students – 29 percent of the district’s K-12 enrollment – fall through the cracks in the nation’s second-largest school district. LAUSD has the largest concentration of English learners, most of whom are Spanish speakers, in the United States.
<<(Photo courtesy of Creative Commons).
The situation of English learners in LA underscores a decades-long national trend.
“What happens in LA really does set trends for across the nation. More and more school districts are dealing with this challenge,” Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, told the Los Angeles Times.
The number of English learners enrolled in public school in the U.S. has grown by 51 percent, from 3.5 million in the 1997-98 school year to 5.3 million in the 2008-09 school year. At the same time, K-12 enrollment grew by only 7.2 percent, to 49.5 million, according to data from the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.
The district agreed to revise how English learners, as well as blacks, are taught in order to remedy educational inequity, concluding the 19-month civil rights investigation initiated in March 2010 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The agreement includes a revision of the district’s Master Plan for English Learners.
“The purpose [of the LAUSD’s current program for English learners] is mastery of the English language. Not college readiness,” said Felipe Martinez, assistant director of the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund, which provides first-generation and low-income students – most of whom are graduates of LA public schools – with scholarships to the University of Southern California.
Yet the district is failing even in regard to the mastery of the English language. Only 25 percent of English learners in high school ranked as proficient in English and 30 percent in math, according to the district’s 2010-11 report card. In comparison, the district’s average was 48 percent proficient in English and 46 percent in math.
One of the criticisms levied against the district’s English learner program is that it allows non-native speakers to remain in the program for years. Many students never achieve the criteria to be integrated into classes at grade level.
Only 12 percent of English learners were reclassified as fluent in the 2010-11 school year, according to data from the California Department of Education.
However, Martinez said, students who are judged to have achieved English proficiency often are not placed into college-preparatory classes.
Martinez immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the sixth grade, and remained in the English learner program until the ninth grade. Even after his transition into the mainstream curriculum, he was not placed into college-preparatory classes besides Algebra.
Martinez proposed translating material from college-preparatory classes into the students’ native languages, so as not to “neglect the whole student” in pursuit of English language mastery.
He also stressed the importance of parent involvement in order to reinforce language acquisition out of the classroom.
“Maybe [the parents] can learn the language themselves, along with their child,” Martinez said.
More important, he said, is that parents understand the value of education.
“Parents [need to] understand that just because their child goes to high school in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she will get a job when they finish.”