English-Language Learners

Born in the U.S.A.

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 04, 2002 16 min read
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After a long day of cutting pig carcasses into pork chops at a local meat- processing plant, Armando Alcantar watches two of his sons jog backward and forward and run plays with teammates in a local American football league.

Thousands of Mexican-American teenagers who were born in the United States are still not fluent in English. What's going wrong?

Speaking in Spanish, the stocky Mexican native, 39, with a captivating sense of humor talks about why his 12-year-old son, Javier—a slender, agile boy who was born in the United States—still isn’t considered fluent in English by the school he attends.

“It’s our fault because we don’t speak English at home,” the father says rather nonchalantly. He wants his children to get a good education in English, but personally, he says, he’s been able to get along for more than 20 years in this country without speaking the language.

“It’s like Mexico here,” he says, smiling and gesturing toward more than 150 Mexican- American boys on the playing field in powder-blue East L.A. Bobcats helmets and their parents relaxing on the grassy sidelines.

Some teachers and administrators here agree with Alcantar. They say this city has thousands of students such as Javier who were born in the United States and have reached middle or high school without becoming fluent in English because many of their parents speak only Spanish and the children don’t have to speak English outside of school.

But if it were only that simple, other educators say. They tick off many reasons why students struggle for years to learn English: Students’ lives are disorganized. They don’t read outside the classroom. Some lack motivation. Many of their parents didn’t finishprimary school and don’t know how to help them or don’t find the time to do so. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s special programs to teach students English have been inconsistently and poorly carried out.

Whatever the reasons, the presence of such students in Los Angeles and in other cities across the country is driving the national debate over how best to teach students English. Voters in California and Arizona approved state ballot initiatives largely curtailing bilingual education after hearing that English-language learners were languishing in such programs.

In 1998, voters here in California were the first to pass an anti-bilingual-education measure, named Proposition 227, that calls for students whose first language isn’t English to be placed in structured English-immersion classes “not normally to exceed one year.” Two years later, Arizona voters passed a state ballot measure requiring schools to implement such classes.

Similar measures are slated for statewide ballots in Colorado and Massachusetts in November; supporters there also are charging that schools don’t teach children English quickly enough.

“If students were in a bilingual program for a year and then they did well enough to move into a regular classroom, I don’t think anyone would be arguing,” says Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley businessman who financed the campaigns in California and Arizona to get rid of bilingual education and is doing the same in Colorado and Massachusetts.

Javier Alcantar

Javier Alcantar, center, is in many ways a typical 12-year-old American boy. Yet, like thousands of Mexican-American children born in the United States, the Los Angeles youngster is not fluent in English.
—Allison Shelley

Everyone seems to agree that the phenomenon of American-born students of immigrant parents who haven’t learned English by middle or high school indeed represents a failure. But the root of the failure is open to debate.

Here in Los Angeles, educators say the solution is about providing students with highly qualified teachers, a consistent curriculum from year to year, and opportunities beyond the regular school day to learn English, rather than worrying about whether students receive bilingual or English-only instruction.

“Of course bilingual education was blamed for the failure of the students,” says Rita P. Caldera, the director of the language-acquisition branch of the Los Angeles Unified system. “What we found was that since Proposition 227, whether students participated in bilingual education or structured English immersion, the outcomes have been about the same.”

Unz counters that the failure of U.S.-born students to learn English by middle or high school doesn’t indicate the success or failure of Proposition 227. “I think what you are seeing is the residual consequences of some very bad educational policies from eight to 10 years ago,” he says. “I’d be surprised if those students who don’t speak English today were given intensive English classes when they were 5 or 6 years old.”

Lupe Paramo, the principal of Belvedere Middle School in East Los Angeles, first realized the extent of some U.S.-born youths’ struggles to learn English when she became a counselor at a Los Angeles high school in 1994. She initially assumed the students enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes were immigrants. She herself had moved from Mexico to Los Angeles when she was 9, learned standard English, and eventually earned advanced education degrees. But many of the ESL students would say, “ ‘No, Miss, I was born here,’ ” she recalls.

When Paramo became Belvedere’s principal three years ago, she started to explore how to help such students, whom some teachers called “lifers.”

She and her staff found that 600 of the school’s 1,000 English-language learners had carried the label for at least seven years, including some students who had stagnated at the beginning level of ESL for years. Nearly all of the school’s 2,700 students are Hispanic.

Last school year, Belvedere took the students who had finished the school’s four levels of ESL classes but still weren’t fluent in English and reassigned them to advanced ESL, which lasted two periods a day. The school used a new curriculum for those students and provided intensive instruction in reading and writing. As a result, 200 students who had been at a standstill in moving toward meeting district criteria for fluency once again started to make progress in English.

One challenge Paramo faces in teaching students English is finding qualified ESL teachers. About half the school’s 14 ESL teachers have emergency credentials.

This school year, 900 of Belvedere’s 1,200 English- language learners have had the label for at least seven years. “I’m worried about the students not having a choice when they are finished with high school,” Paramo says.

The state of California and the Los Angeles schools are starting to zero in on the problem.

Aldrina and Maria Diaz

Aldrina Diaz, 12, was born in the United States and is a motivated student. But the school district says she is still not fluent in English. Her mother, María, at left, understands some English, but can’t speak it.
—Allison Shelley

Los Angeles Unified, for example, is in the second year of a three-year, $96 million grant from the California Department of Education to provide 120 hours of English beyond the regular school day to English-language learners. At Belvedere this summer, 140 middle school students enrolled in six-week English crash courses paid for by the grant. Ninety percent of those students were born in the United States.

Many of the American-born students whom the school classifies as not fluent in English actually can easily carry on a conversation in the language, and most of those students prefer to speak English with their friends and siblings. Some of them took bilingual education classes in their early primary grades, while others were always immersed in English at school. Some have visited Mexico, the native land of the parents of almost every student in those classes, and others haven’t. Most don’t read and write in Spanish.

But they have a limited English vocabulary—some don’t know the word “fluent.” Some confuse English and Spanish. “I want to get married when I have a carrera,” says Aldrina Diaz, a 12-year-old who was born in Los Angeles. She uses the Spanish word instead of the English word for “career.” “My mom works in a fabric,” relays one of Aldrina’s classmates, using her own rendition of the Spanish word fábrica, which means factory.

The students themselves believe they are fluent in English, but Paramo says they aren’t: “The kids use a lot of slang words. The vocabulary doesn’t have depth to it. If they were fluent, they would be able to comprehend better and do better on tests.”

The students know social English but lack academic English. Most have poor reading and writing skills, according to their teachers.

To be reclassified as fluent in English in Los Angeles Unified schools, English-language learners must first pass the California English Language Development Test, a new state standardized test that was designed for them. They must also have a C average in their core academic classes and score at or above the 36th percentile on the reading and language sections of the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, which is given to all students in the state.

Many of the students will likely carry the English-language learner label into high school.

“We have a lot of these kids,” says Adam Casas, an ESL teacher at Garfield High School, a concrete labyrinth of a school here in East Los Angeles with 4,300 students, almost all of whom are Hispanic. “More than anything, they haven’t been taught the right way,” he continues. “They don’t have a learning disability. [But] they have horrible work habits and work ethics. They don’t have any support at home. Nobody really taught them the way to read and write. They can’t spell ‘when’ and ‘went.’ They get the two confused. They use them out of context.”

Many of the U.S.-born Garfield students who struggle with English are among the 700 students at the school who have finished all the levels of ESL that the school system offers but still haven’t been reclassified as fluent in English. Altogether, Garfield High has 1,200 English-language learners, the term most experts now use instead of “limited English proficient,” or LEP.

At the same time, adds Casas, who is a graduate of the school, Garfield has had a good share of high-achieving students whose first language wasn’t English who became judges, actors, and politicians. In fact, the success of then-Garfield teacher Jaime A. Escalante in coaching 18 students at the school to pass the Advanced Placement calculus exam in 1982 was dramatized in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver.”

East Los Angeles feels like Mexico. The open doors to shops lining Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, which runs past Belvedere Middle School and through the heart of the neighborhood, invite passersby to smell the aroma of baking sweet rolls in a panadería, check out party balloons hovering in the entrance of a flower shop, or sing along with a Spanish love song. A sidewalk lunch menu for a taquería promotes classic Mexican dishes such as chicken smothered in mole, a hearty chili sauce.

But other sights, sounds, and smells provide a reality check that East Los Angeles is actually a blend of Mexican and American cultures. The American and Mexican flags fly side by side. Most information posted in Spanish is also posted in English. Announcers on the public address system in the local supermarket speak in English; at Javier Alcantar’s football practice, hosted by a local nonprofit organization, the Hispanic coaches and players converse almost entirely in English.

When parents of students here think of their children’s futures, they are aware of this blend of cultures. They know by the daily grind of their lives that people who speak only Spanish are at a great disadvantage in landing a good job, even in Los Angeles.

When they learn that one of their children is bajo en inglés, or isn’t doing well in English, they are both worried and mystified. After all, it seems to them that their U.S.-born children are fluent in English.

Javier’s mother, Hilaria Alcantar, for example, says she’s been worried since Javier’s F in ESL in 6th grade tipped her off that all was not well at school.

“I don’t know if my son doesn’t learn, or if the teachers don’t teach,” she says, speaking in Spanish in an earnest tone while seated in a room of her house that is decorated and furnished as a Mexican living room might be. A reproduction of a painting of Jesus seated with his disciples for the Last Supper hangs on the wall near a traditional-style dining room table with high-backed chairs.

Hilaria Alcantar is a slight woman with long black hair tied in a loose ponytail. Four days earlier, she gave birth to her fourth child, so she’s taking some time off from her job making automobile seats at a nearby factory.

Javier insists that he failed ESL last year “‘cause of the teacher.” He took the California English Language Development Test last school year, but didn’t receive the score he needed to be reclassified as fluent in English.

Juan Venegas

Juan Venegas, 14, a freshman at Garfield High School in Los Angeles who was born in the United States, participates in a hip-hop dance class with family members. He is still considered an English-language learner.
—Allison Shelley

He reads along confidently in class and speaks English clearly and freely. But his speech often is a little rough. For example, he says he’s taking the summer English crash course “‘cause I got to fail.”

His mother criticizes Javier for caring too much about sports and not enough about schoolwork. He does his homework hurriedly, she says. She’s unaware, however, of the ins and outs of her son’s school curriculum. When asked if she knew that Javier takes special classes to learn English during the school year, she immediately turned to her son and checked out the information with him.

She didn’t know this, she explains, with a bit of frustration in her voice, because “I hardly ever visit the school. I’m always working.”

Meanwhile, 13-year-old Angelica Limón, a serious and reserved 8th grader at Belvedere, has always applied herself at school. She dutifully completes homework assignments. But after eight years of schooling in the United States, she has trouble conversing in English. She doesn’t understand some simple questions and uses Spanish grammar while speaking in English.

She took the California English Language Development Test last school year and, like Javier, didn’t reach the cut-off score to be reclassified as fluent in English.

Her mother, Gloria Limón, uttering almost the same words in Spanish as Javier’s mom, wonders who is at fault for Angelica’s slow development in English. “I don’t know if she doesn’t study, or if the teachers don’t teach,” she says. She observes that Angelica hasn’t ever really liked to speak English, although her sister likes to speak the language.

Angelica says she’s still in ESL classes because when she was young, she couldn’t get her tongue around the proper sounds both for Spanish and English. She worked with a speech therapist for a while. “It is hard to talk,” she says in English. “I don’t have the accent good. My tongue was stuck. I couldn’t talk English well or Spanish.”

Unz believes California’s system for classifying students as fluent “makes very little sense and is extremely erratic.” Even many native English-speakers don’t score at or above the 36th percentile on California’s standardized test, the score that English-language learners typically must obtain to test out of English- language programs, he notes. In his view, it’s crazy to base English fluency on such a score.

Since the passage of Proposition 227 four years ago, the average proportion of English-language learners that California schools have reclassified each year as fluent in English has increased only from 7 percent to 9 percent.

Unz charges that school districts often don’t bother to reclassify English-language learners as fluent because they get extra state funding for such students.

The reality, says Caldera of the Los Angeles district, is that it takes most of her school system’s English-language learners three to five years to meet the district’s criteria for English fluency.

She doesn’t think the redesignation criteria are too high.

“When we reclassify students too early and they aren’t academically prepared, they don’t do well in the academic courses at the higher levels,” she says.

The school system has focused recently on trying to decrease the number of students whom Caldera calls “curriculum casualties.” Those are the 34,000 students— down from 40,000 two years ago—who have been English-language learners for at least seven years. That’s out of 302,000 English-language learners in the 737,000- student school system.

The Los Angeles schools are not alone in having large numbers of such students. The 1.1 million-student New York City school system found two years ago that 11 percent of its English-language learners who had been in the system since kindergarten had stayed in bilingual or ESL programs for at least seven years.

Caldera faults Los Angeles Unified for not providing consistency and highly qualified teachers for English-acquisition programs. She says she’s trying to resolve those problems. Her office just implemented a curriculum in all ESL classes for grades 6-12 that focuses on teaching academic English.

“I can’t change the demographics of the district— that students live in Spanish-speaking communities,” Caldera says. “I don’t have a lot of control over those things, so I don’t waste a lot of time on those excuses.”

In the past five years, references to “long-term English-language learners” such as Javier, Aldrina, and Angelica have cropped up in books and research papers about education.

The researchers tend to hold schools rather than families and students responsible for the phenomenon.

“A lot of issues are involved like passing kids on because they are English-language learners, and schools don’t want to be accused of not passing them on,” says Yvonne S. Freeman, a professor of bilingual education at the University of Texas, Pan American, who co-wrote a book with her husband David E. Freeman, Closing the Achievement Gap: How to Reach Limited-Formal-Schooling and Long-Term English Learners, published in January.

Javier Alcantar

Javier Alcantar, 12, also U.S.-born and carrying the English-language-learner label, quenches his thirst during football practice.
—Allison Shelley

One of the keys to improving English-acquisition programs, she says, is providing students with academic content based on themes, instead of teaching them English vocabulary that doesn’t connect with their lives.

Rebecca M. Callahan, a doctoral student in education at the University of California, Davis, is documenting how staying in English-language-acquisition programs for years can drastically hinder students’ opportunities to attend four-year colleges.

Her preliminary data show that out of 200 high school students studied who had been English-language learners for at least seven years, only 9 were in the process of completing or had completed the math and science classes they needed to be accepted by the University of California or California State University systems.

While Armando Alcantar speaks casually about his own chances to get an education and learn English, he has reflected seriously on his children’s opportunities. He hopes his son Eduardo, whom he considers to be an excellent student, will eventually land a scholarship to attend a four-year college. Thirteen-year-old Eduardo, Javier’s brother, was reclassified as fluent in English four years ago. Javier, their father speculates, is not likely to receive a scholarship, but perhaps will be able to finance his college education by enlisting in the U.S. Army.

A former migrant farm worker with a 3rd grade education from Mexico, Alcantar worked for seven years in a clothing factory for $7.30 an hour before landing the meat-processing job a year ago. It pays $7.50 an hour. Alcantar is proud that he and his wife own their home, which his wife keeps immaculate. But he expects his children to land better jobs than he has.

Javier gives the impression that he’s still interested in school. The boy’s goal is to some day be accepted into the University of California, Berkeley, and become an engineer.

To do so, he says, “I have to pass ESL, graduate in honors.”

But during a water break at football practice, he is asked which is more important to him, making the team in the youth league or passing the state’s test that could lead to his transfer to what students here call “regular English.”

He hesitates for a moment and grins. “They are both about equal,” he says.


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