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A few weeks ago, I attended a KPBS and Public Radio International presentation called A Community Conversation: What Does it Mean to Be an Immigrant Student in San Diego? One of my favorite radio hosts, Marco Werman of PRI’s “The World,” moderated the event.

During the Q-and-A session, Joseph Ekyoci, a student at Hoover High School, who said he arrived in the U.S. only a few years ago, asked a question that fascinated me.

Question: Why are immigrant students required to learn two languages at the same time?” – Joseph Ekyoci, student at Hoover High.

Starting with the class of 2016, all students in San Diego Unified need to pass two years of a foreign language in order to graduate, unless they’re able to pass a test proving they know enough to bypass the classes. But testing out of the language requirement isn’t likely for students who haven’t had much formal schooling.

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The changes to the graduation requirements go to back to 2011, when the school board decided that by the year 2016, all students must pass a series of courses, known as A-G courses, which are required to get into UC and CSU schools.

The new graduation requirements aren’t radically different from the old ones. But they require two years of the same foreign language, which is new, and three years of math, one of which must be intermediate Algebra or its Common Core equivalent. Those two courses, along with English, have become the three biggest sticking points for the class of 2016, according to a recent study from UCSD.

There are several reasons for this, but a major one owes to what’s historically amounted to a systemic disconnect in San Diego Unified.

That is, some students have been able to knock out one or two years of the language requirement while they’re still in middle school. Others had to wait until they got to high school until they had access to foreign language.

In the past two years, district officials say they’ve been making a more concerted effort to smooth the middle-to-high-school disconnect. Offering more foreign language classes in middle school is one long-term reform effort they’ve committed to.

But the foreign language requirement is an even bigger challenge for the 32,000 students in the district who are considered English-learners. Of this group, more than 5,000 students have been in San Diego schools for six or more years and still aren’t fluent in English.

English-learners have the lowest academic performance in the district. Fewer English-learners are expected to graduate in 2016 than students have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, according to the UCSD study.

And for some English-learners, the foreign language requirement means they must learn two languages from scratch: In addition to taking a course in a foreign language that counts toward graduation, they also have to learn English.

San Diego Unified officials questioned the logic of this. Colleges want students with well-rounded educations who are prepared to meet the demands of an increasingly multilingual society.

But that point seems redundant for students who already know a foreign language because they speak it at home. Furthermore, English-learners are often behind in other credits in math or English. So they’re spending time learning a language instead of taking college prep classes to catch up with their peers.

That’s why district officials have started offering English-learners the chance to essentially test out of the foreign language requirement.

But there’s a catch. The assessments that gives students the chance to test out of the language requirement are only offered in certain languages. So a student who speaks Spanish could take a test in his or her native language. Students speaking less common languages, like Burmese, couldn’t take a similar test.

The foreign language course menu varies by high school, too. Scripps Ranch High offers American Sign Language, French, Japanese and Spanish courses. Point Loma High offers Chinese, French and Spanish courses. You get the point.

Immigrants, specifically those with few English skills and limited years of school, are at an increased risk of dropping out or falling short of grad requirements.

Skye Cooke-Pinon, a teacher at Crawford High School, estimates around 45 languages are spoken on Crawford’s campus. Cooke-Pinon teaches in Crawford’s New Arrival center – one of seven in the district where students take basic English courses until they progress to mainstream classes.

Refugee students are a particularly challenging group to serve. They might have little prior education and carry trauma from the things they’ve witnessed in war-torn counties.

Sometimes refugees don’t arrive with transcripts, said Cooke-Pinon. In those cases, they start as freshmen, regardless of age.

We’ve reported a lot on the challenges of serving English-learners. But what stood out to me as I reported this story is that even within this broader group of disadvantaged students, there is disparity.

In terms of learning a new language, immigrants and refugees may have to climb the steepest mountain.

Mario Koran contributed to this article.

    This article relates to: Education, English-Learners, Must Reads, The Learning Curve

    Written by Rachel Evans

    Rachel Evans is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at

    Cornelius Ogunsalu
    Cornelius Ogunsalu

    The solution is simple, i.e., create a test bank for all languages represented in the school district, so that the foreign students can test the language they already speak. How hard can it be to translate the different versions of the English Language Proficiency Test into all the languages represented in the district? It is mindboggling to me [how] the district is taking a simple problem with a simple solution and turning it into a complex problem with seemingly no solution.

    And doing that for each language is not going to be that expensive considering the availability of technology and access to school boards in the various foreign countries to coordinate the translations. However, the problem must be overly exaggerated in order for it to be allocated huge amounts of financial resources, that will be misused for the most part, so that the problem stays for as long as possible to milk the system.

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    It is difficult for English Learners to be proficient enough in tow languages to graduate. However if the requirement is waived for certain students then there is not equal education for graduates. If you waive the two language requirement why not waive the math requirement. How about Physical Education. The let's waive U. S. History as they are native born Americans. No to all of these. As difficult as it is for foreign born students to pass all the required classes, they must continue to try or to not graduate. The diploma must stand for something besides giving in to all the diverse groups who want extra accommodation


    bcat subscriber

    No doubt it is tough to be an immigrant.  My grandparents (all four) were and one of them never learned English.  They question is 'what do we expect from high school graduates?'  and 'what are we willing to pay to accommodate those that are not mainstream?'

    It is not so easy to manage a high school / middle school staff.  You need to balance the budget, class size, teaching credentials, and the constraints of the union.  These conspire to create a situation that aims education at the mainstream.

    If your school has a large population and low income, you have the most flexibility as a principal.  You can push class sizes lower with your Title 1 money and you have a critical mass to offer less common courses to a small percentage of the student body.

    If you are a middle class, small school you have the worst scenario.  You get enough money to have +33 pupils per classroom.  You don't have enough money to offer several foreign languages (or other electives).  You don't have a staff with a variety of credentials allowing you to move a teacher to different subjects or academic rigor levels (AP vs. non-AP) year by year to balance the changing demands of the population.

    We are a nation built on immigrants.  We have been more accommodating to immigrants than many other countries.  However, it has never been easy.