Border System Defies Low Expectations for L.E.P. Students

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CALEXICO, CALIF.--As its name suggests, this town on the nation's southern border seems as much a part of Mexico as a part of California. The border crossing bustles like any big-city intersection as thousands of Mexicans walk or drive here each day to work, to shop, and, sometimes, to stay.

The Mexican flavor of Calexico's streets permeates its schools as well. Of the district's 6,700 students, 98 percent are Hispanic and 80 percent are limited-English-proficient. More than 40 percent of the students in its high school were born in Mexico.

And given the fact that more than half of its students come from low-income backgrounds that qualify them for federal lunch subsidies, Calexico's demographics make it a classic example of the kind of district most would expect to be plagued by low student achievement and high dropout rates.

But by taking an unusual, districtwide approach to educating limited-English-proficient Hispanic children, the Calexico Unified School District appears to be defying these low expectations.

The annual dropout rate here has hovered around 14 percent, well below the 29 percent statewide average for Hispanic students, and it usually is below that of any other predominantly Hispanic district in the state. Although 98 percent of its kindergarten students enter school knowing little or no English, about one-fifth of its students go on to four-year colleges, and another three-fifths enroll in community college.

Administrators here say the district is succeeding in educating Hispanic L.E.P. students because it does not rely on any one program to get the job done, but instead has focused the attention of its entire school system on the education of L.E.P. students, bringing almost every teacher on board.

"We don't even think that much in terms of bilingual education anymore,'' Superintendent Roberto Moreno says. "We just have the basic programs, and in some of the basic programs, Spanish is the vehicle for instruction.''

Observers also say that administrators here show an unusual degree of commitment to educating L.E.P. students.

As a result of the district's success, bilingual-education advocates elsewhere have been urging other school systems with large language-minority populations to use Calexico as a model for dealing with L.E.P. students on a systemwide basis. To help fund efforts to duplicate Calexico's approach, they also have been lobbying Congress to establish districtwide and even statewide bilingual-education grants.

"With the changing demographics, bilingual education no longer can be appropriately viewed as an ad hoc or supplemental program,'' argues James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

Bilingual education, Mr. Lyons says, "has to be incorporated in the basic education program--at least where there are large numbers or high proportions of language-minority students.''

'Parallel Curricula'

Largely because of its location near the borders of Mexico and Arizona, the Calexico district has always been heavily Hispanic. Mexicali, a Mexican city of 700,000 just across the border, historically has provided many of the laborers who come over and work the crops here in the sunny, irrigated fields of California's Imperial Valley.

Like many districts, Calexico once placed its L.E.P. students in intensive classes in English as a second language, the goal being to quickly mainstream them into regular classrooms.

As immigration rates increased during the 1970's, however, the district experienced a troubling decline in its standardized-test scores, particularly among the Mexican students who immigrated and entered its schools at an older age and seemed only to fall further and further behind their peers.

Frustrated in its attempts to fit such students into its school system, Calexico began to change the system to fit the needs of the students.

The district's E.S.L. programs soon evolved into bilingual-education programs using native-language instruction.

Then--in a leap few, if any, other districts had yet taken--it began during the 1980's to use bilingual-teaching methodologies throughout the schools, according to Emily J. Palacio, the district's assistant superintendent for instructional services.

As part of this process, the district developed for virtually every subject what Ms. Palacio calls "parallel curricula'' in Spanish and in "sheltered'' English, that is, English geared to the students' level of proficiency.

"The nature of our population is such that we needed to provide a strong program in whatever language was needed to get the information across,'' Ms. Palacio says.

"We no longer have those distinctions that 'This is a bilingual program, this is a monolingual program,''' she adds. "We say, 'This is the curriculum. This is what we want students to learn.' We are focused on outcomes.''

"The goal,'' Mr. Moreno explains, "has been to give access to all students, regardless of their background.''

Some Skeptical Parents

The changes in Calexico did not take place without controversy, however. Some of the strongest resistance came from Spanish-speaking parents who feared that teaching their children in Spanish would hinder their assimilation and their progress in school.

Even today, most of the parents of entering kindergarten students "fear that if the classes are spoken in Spanish, the children won't learn English,'' says Mari Marquez, a kindergarten teacher at Mains Elementary School.

Mr. Moreno says the district has allayed many such fears by having principals and teachers reassure parents that their children will be receiving E.S.L. instruction every day. They tell parents that Spanish-language instruction in other subjects is necessary so their children will not be behind in those subjects when they are moved into English-speaking classrooms.

As a concession to those parents who have remained unconvinced, the district also has maintained a handful of classes in each grade level, including kindergarten, that are taught almost entirely in English.

As time has gone by, the demand by Calexico parents for classes taught in English has dropped, Mr. Moreno says. The district's efforts to expand its bilingual programs have been helped, he says, by the fact that the parents opposed to bilingual education have never organized.

The Reagan Administration, which was widely perceived as hostile to bilingual education, actually helped Calexico's efforts by providing funding to help it develop sheltered-English classes for students who were further along in acquiring their new language, Mr. Moreno notes.

Steadily rising achievement rates and test scores also helped quiet many skeptics here, Mr. Moreno says.

Take Children 'Where They Are'

One group of students, however, continued to experience difficulty in the district's schools. Ironically, they were the same students who had first inspired the district's reform efforts--Mexican children who immigrated and entered Calexico's schools at an advanced age.

"The students, as they came in, just weren't fitting in,'' Mr. Moreno says.

District officials considered establishing a special "newcomer'' program for such students, but initially resisted the idea because they feared it would leave the students segregated.

Finally, however, the failure of such students in regular classrooms convinced district officials that they had no other choice. Two years ago, the district piloted newcomer programs for 5th- and 6th-grade students at Mains Elementary and Jefferson Elementary, on opposite sides of town.

The students in such classes receive intensive instruction in English as a second language. In content areas, their teachers try to address perceived deficiencies in the educations the children received in Mexico, giving them extra instruction in areas where they had received little before, such as the applications of hands-on science, and with equipment they had rarely used before, such as computers.

During a tour of the Calexico district this spring, the sounds of both Spanish and English could be heard flowing from the same classrooms and, often, from the same students.

At Dool Elementary School, which is piloting a whole-language program, short stories written in either language covered one 3rd-grade classroom wall.

"I like to take the children where they are at--with the home language that they bring--and build on that,'' Elena R. Castro, the teacher in that class, says.

On chalkboards throughout the district, some vocabulary words and children's answers were written in English, others in Spanish. Yet there appeared to be no deliberate attempt to translate one language to the other.

In many classrooms, the children were equally mixed together, at least in terms of their language ability.

"I learned a long time ago that I cannot be the only teacher in the classroom,'' Ms. Castro says. "We mix the children up so that they can learn from each other.''

To insure that its faculty members can work with such a mixture of different languages and cultures, the district has made a concerted effort to recruit Hispanic bilingual teachers and to provide them with extensive training--an average of 35 hours per year. Currently, 70 percent of its elementary teachers hold state certification in bilingual education.

In addition, 58 percent of district administrators are Hispanic and bilingual, and all are asked to sign a statement of values that calls for respect for different cultures and languages and holds that all children should have equal access to learning and further education.

Chuck J. Acosta, the immediate past president of the California Association for Bilingual Education, attributes much of Calexico's success to "commitment starting at the top.''

"The Calexico model and experience is catching on,'' Mr. Acosta says, observing that other school systems in his state have begun to try to do the same things, at least on a schoolwide basis.

In at least one respect, Mr. Moreno says, "we are reaping the benefits of seeds we planted.''

Calexico High School graduates, he notes proudly, constitute about half of the district's teachers at the elementary level, and are the main source of bilingual teachers for the district as a whole.

Vol. 12, Issue extra edition

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