The Learning Curve is a weekly, jargon-free column that answers questions about education. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


I was a first-year teacher, in over my head.

With no formal training– and little preparation of any kind – I stepped into a classroom at a school for juvenile offenders. Students didn’t choose to come to my class. The state of Colorado mandated they be there.

It was a difficult school to work in. Teachers cycled in and out. That’s the reason I got the job: The school was short-handed and looking for a warm body with a college degree. I applied for an emergency teaching credential, which allowed me to work so long as I enrolled in night classes to learn how to actually be a teacher.

Learning Curve-sq-01Every student in class had committed a serious, sometimes violent, crime. Students spent the days in classrooms, like typical teenagers, then returned each night to their bunks at the opposite side of campus.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

These students had seen a lot. Most grew up in poverty. Many suffered extreme physical and abuse. They joined gangs, because that’s what their father did and their grandfather, too.

I remember one student, a brooding 17-year-old named Tate, who sat in the back of the class and read Harry Potter when the rest of the class was working. Tate had surgery just before he entered my class because a rival gang member walked up to him and shot him in the mouth when he was pumping gas in east Denver.

These students needed the most skilled and qualified teachers who could support them emotionally and academically. Instead they got me. And I was scrambling to get by.

One day, a 15-year-old student named Gonzalez, transferred into my class. He spoke little English – certainly not enough keep up with the rest of the class. That wasn’t uncommon – I had several Spanish-speakers in class already.

But Gonzalez presented a new challenge: He spoke little English, but he was illiterate in Spanish, too. He couldn’t write his name because he didn’t know the alphabet.

Nothing in my experience had equipped me to help Gonzalez. We had no common language on which to build lessons. Even if I could spend all my time in class focused solely on Gonzalez, I would have had no long-term strategies to offer. Several weeks later, when he transferred out of my class, I was relieved.

I stopped teaching about a year later. But I often think about Gonzalez and what I could have done to help him. This week, I’m going to try to answer my own question.

Question: What should teachers do when students are illiterate in two languages?

Conor Williams, a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program, said kids like Gonzalez represent a kind of worst-case scenario for teachers. That is, by the time he entered class he had so little education, and was so far behind, that he wasn’t able to access information like native-speakers.

Gonzalez’s experience is hardly unique. Thousands of students just like him step into California classrooms every year. And data from the California Department of Education shows that the state has long struggled to help them.

Statewide, English-learners have some of the lowest graduation rates and highest dropout rates of any student group. In San Diego Unified, fewer English-learners are expected to graduate in 2016 than are students who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities.

Olympia Kyriakidis, a former principal who is now leading work around equity for the San Diego County Office of Education, says the first step in supporting English-learners is understanding what students know in their native language: Can they write at all? How many years of school have they had? All of these factors matter for how quickly students pick up English.

“The first step is understanding what the students do come with,” said Kyriakidis.

Research shows it takes about four to seven years, on average for students to reach full proficiency in English. Students who have been in American schools for six or more years and still haven’t mastered English are considered long-term English-learners. There are roughly 5,500 of these students in San Diego Unified.

We might assume it’s easy to spot students in class who struggle with English. But research suggests that some English-learners have perfected the ability to fly undetected. They might be quiet or well-behaved in class. Maybe they seem highly functional when they speak English with friends, but their grades reveal that they’re not comprehending class material.

Joe Austin, principal at Hoover High, said that in the past it wasn’t uncommon for teachers to be unaware they had students in class struggling with English. He remedied this by making sure teachers have student data in-hand by the time they enter class.

The goal for English-learning students is to be “reclassified” as fluent in English, which happens if students make enough progress on a yearly test.

Reclassification is a crucial moment. Once students are reclassified, they have more access to rigorous college-prep material because they don’t have to spend time in classes where they focus exclusively on learning English. (The rub is that after they reclassify, students won’t have as much language support, and some students backslide.) And, unfortunately, some students are never able to reclassify.

The central task for those teaching English-earners is how to help students overcome the two-pronged challenge of learning a new language while trying to master academic content like math, science and history.

It’s a balancing act: Language is the cornerstone of all subjects. Push students into challenging content too soon, without enough support, and you risk isolating the students in classes whose content they don’t understand.

Yet, if schools isolate English-learning students in separate classes until they’re considered fluent, they’ll miss academic content and fall further behind their peers.

It’s not easy to find the sweet spot. Few schools in San Diego do it well. But Kearny High in Linda Vista may offer some valuable lessons.

Last year, I opened a story about English-learners at Kearny by zooming in on the success of one student, Ángel Solorzano. When he arrived at school he spoke no English. Yet, the following year he jumped into AP classes. Ultimately he made it to UC Santa Cruz on a full-ride scholarship.

It’s a feel-good anecdote that reminds us to hold onto high expectations. But what I didn’t get into was the fact that even though Solorzano didn’t speak English, he already had a solid education before he arrived at Kearny. His principal, Ana Diaz-Booz, knew he was capable of jumping right into a mainstream classes because she speaks Spanish and assessed him in his native language.

But even with Solorzano’s capacity, Diaz-Booz didn’t toss him sink-or-swim into a mainstream classes.

She placed him into classes that were designed, in part, for students like him: Teachers stressed the academic language that many non-native speakers miss. Solorzano’s teachers built into classes frequent opportunities to speak – and they consciously tried to create a welcoming environment so students weren’t too embarrassed to talk.

That work showed up in test scores. English-learners at Kearny scored higher on standardized tests than English-learners in any other district high school.

This isn’t to say that every school in San Diego can or should try to replicate the exact structure of Kearny High school. But the strategies employed at Kearny are at the heart of San Diego Unified’s plan to better serve English-learners.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

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

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    California has a problem from a core of people who think they are not "ethnic" and throw state initiatives and force legislation against English learners. The problem those same people pose, is raising low test scores. There are two groups of children who struggle k-12, English learners and Special Ed students. Special Ed students get short shrift because the Federal government consistently underfunds mandated programs by 40% each year. The gap that ensues is never really completely filled by local school districts. The funds local school districts use for special ed diminish funding for English Learners. Most of the low scores in schools go to these two groups.

    Some people think that all children come to school ready to learn. They don't.  Some people don't want to pay for improving learning for English Learners and Special Ed students. 

        Money can and does solve specific learning difficulties. Special Ed and English Learners are highly labor intensive and require specific skill sets that cannot be justifiably hoisted onto the regular ed students nor the regular ed teachers.  If California and the ensnarled bureaucracy created by California would get out of the way California could be top in the nation for education.

    There are people who are uniquely qualified to teach English Language Learners and Special Ed students, they just need to be allowed to do so. State colleges must begin to ramp up again teaching programs for teachers to teach English Language Learners and Special Education students.

    EducatedMom subscribermember

    I agree with your other commenters: I would encourage you to dive deeper into the data. All ELs are not the same, so it's hard to generalize.  The district has pockets of ELs that speak a host of languages (reportedly 65).  One area might be predominantly Vietnamese, another Somali, another a pocket of Arabic languages, etc.  Then there is the issue of when the students immigrated here and what their backgrounds are.  There is a difference between a student who immigrated here at say 8 years old vs 15 years old.  There is a huge difference between a 12 year old who was in school in their home nation vs. one who had been living in a refugee camp for five years and had limited access to education.  And what is the overlap between the long-term ELs and Special Education?  Students with IEPs tend to struggle relative to their peers in academics and/or testing, so it would stand to reason that ELs with IEPs might be slower to reclassify as well.

    Finally, dig deeper into what SDUSD is doing for their ELs now compared to a couple of years ago.  There is tremendous concern because the district stopped funding English Language Support Teachers (ELSTs) across the district, and schools are finding that, without the ELST support, their ELs are slipping through the cracks.

    rhylton subscriber

    It is refreshing to see VOSD doing work, where the subject matter is not positive, on a school so far north of highway 8.

    I conclude that the failure is not on the part of the students, but of the educators. It is always so.

    As to your related story "What should teachers do when students are illiterate in two languages?", I respectfully ask you to to think again while consulting a dictionary. The verb form of illiterate means the inability to read or write.  If a person becomes literate, in any language, they cease being illiterate, thus making illiteracy, in two languages, impossible. Do better when writing about education.

    francesca subscriber

    In one of the classes that I took, in order to teach English Learners, the text said that for non-English speaking students at the high school level, you should teach them in their native language.

    Whether Physics or Philosophy, when they master English, and they will, all the knowledge will transfer from one language to the other.

    If we really want to educate recently arrived high school children, we need to provide  Spanish speaking teachers.

    "At Kearney, English Learners score higher than at other district high schools", this article says.

    Kearney is in a majority Asian neighborhood.  What percent of the "English Learners" are Vietnamese? 

    The vast majority of Vietnamese last immigrated in 1986. By now, they have learned academic English.

    I would be interested to see the breakdown, by language, of those classified as English Learners.

    If they are all Spanish speakers, teach them in Spanish...regardless of what the political haters say.