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The Learning Curve: The District's Foreign Language Conundrum

New graduation requirements that mandate two years of foreign language classes place an ironic burden on English-learners: In addition to taking a course in a foreign language that counts toward graduation, they also have to learn English.

The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write to Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org or Rachel.Evans@voiceofsandiego.org.

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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.

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.

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