Alexis Rodriguez has gone to California schools since kindergarten. The 13-year-old jokes with other kids in English between lessons. Some of his classmates groan when asked to write in Spanish.
They don’t look like the English learners you might imagine when the phrase pops up, the kids new to the country and struggling to speak English at all. Most of them have spent at least five years in the United States. And yet Rodriguez and his classmates are still grappling with English fluency.
Nearly 40 percent of English learners in San Diego Unified fail to become fluent by the time they reach middle school. Now, schools are starting to eye them, zeroing in on what holds them back.
They’re called “long-term English learners,” students who still fall short of fluency after five or six years in U.S. schools. Like Rodriguez and his classmates, they can gab easily in English, but run into trouble with more sophisticated reading and writing in school. They make up almost 60 percent of English learners in California middle and high schools, one study found, belying the idea that newcomers are the big problem.
Pacific Beach Middle School is testing one way to tackle their needs, a way that might seem odd at first glance. To help seventh and eighth graders who still struggle with English, it is bulking up their skills in both Spanish and English. They take an extra class that teaches them Spanish vocabulary and grammar, then ties it back to what they’re learning in English.
The idea is that once tweens better understand the grammar and structure behind Spanish, they can better translate that savvy to English. Principal Julie Martel and her teachers found that many of their students who were behind in English were also weak in Spanish, even though they speak it at home. Most had never been schooled in Spanish at all.