CALEXICO — Starbucks hasn’t discovered this city, where the Foster’s Freeze ice cream shop is the coolest place to hang out.
It’s a humble city with well-kept homes and neatly trimmed lawns, a community that displays pride in its own by naming the library after a homegrown customs agent killed in the 1980s.
Yet the very essence of Calexico is the 10-campus school district spread across nine square miles.
Long before there was Proposition 227, the statewide June ballot measure to eliminate bilingual education, there was the Calexico Unified School District’s internationally recognized bilingual program.
Of the students entering kindergarten, 98 percent are non-English speaking or have limited English skills, and they are taught in Spanish through most of elementary school.
About 80 percent of all the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 25 percent to 35 percent unemployment keeps the town’s median income to less than $12,000.
In other words, the 7,200-student Calexico district has all the challenges that educators elsewhere say keep students from achieving their full potential.
But that is hardly the way it is here.
Here, 80 percent of the high school seniors go to college.
That’s why eyes from as far away as Sweden are on Calexico these days.
The district is more than willing to share its formula for success, especially now that California’s bilingual education programs are under attack. Voters will decide June 2 whether to dismantle the state’s bilingual programs in exchange for yearlong English immersion programs.
According to a statewide Field Poll conducted late last month, Proposition 227, written by Northern California businessman Ron Unz, is supported by 71 percent of all likely California voters and 58 percent of Latino voters.
The measure is opposed by 21 percent of likely voters.
The survey was taken before the “No on 227″ campaign began airing television ads, many aimed at Latino voters.
Education is a way out
Calexico, population 25,167, is hundreds of miles from the wealth of Unz’s Silicon Valley. It’s a place where education is the way to break away from the poverty and backbreaking work of the agricultural fields that surround the community.
Teachers are rooted in this community: 70 percent of them went through the Calexico schools and are Calexico High School graduates.
And it’s a district whose students are taught in Spanish from kindergarten through fourth grade, something that would be prohibited by the ballot measure.
It wasn’t always this way, said Roberto Moreno, Calexico’s superintendent,
also a graduate of the city’s schools.
For many years, Calexico parents, teachers and school board members felt the only way to learn English was to be taught solely in English, as the Unz proposition advocates.
What educators found, however, were high dropout rates and large numbers of students being held back every year because they didn’t understand the instruction.
“It was so frustrating teaching first grade all in English,”
said Emily Palacio, a former Calexico teacher and now the district’s assistant superintendent. “I worked really hard, and 10 of 30 students couldn’t read no matter how hard I worked.
“That convinced me there’s got to be a better way,” Palacio said.
So, 29 years ago, the district began a bilingual program, starting with seventh-, eighth-and ninth-graders who were taught in Spanish. Three years later, that crop of students produced four who entered college.
Today, the district boasts that 80 percent of its graduates, an average of 360 a year, go on to college.
“It wasn’t philosophy that won,” said Moreno. “It was pragmatism. We were beginning to feel some success.”
That success has come after nearly 30 years of refining.
Billboards are bilingual
Walk into any classroom in the district’s six elementary schools and you find colorful billboards in English and Spanish.
In Socorro Rios’ first-grade class at Mains Elementary recently, the 20 students were seated on the floor singing songs in English.
There were songs about the apple tree, about their 10 little fingers,
the rain and grandma’s spectacles. While singing, the children used their hands, heads and bodies to emphasize different parts of the song.
The children sing because the songs take away the intimidation of learning a language and the nuances of correct pronunciation.
As the students progress to second grade, they speak more English.
By second grade, they are taught math, science and art in “sheltered”
English classes; students are taught in English, with the teachers using hand gestures, pictures, vocabulary and some Spanish to increase understanding.
Across the quad in Sara Garcia’s class, 20 second-graders listened to an English reading lesson on tape. There was a large flip chart with illustrations of the words they were reading.
In soft voices and loud voices and deep and normal voices, the children recited the story in English. Garcia questioned her students about the story,
asking them to pick out the tree, bird, nest and cabin pictured on the chart.
By the third and fourth grades, students hone their English writing skills.
Walls that display Spanish words and difficult English words boost the children’s vocabularies.
In fourth grade, social studies is taught mostly in English and math,
art, music and physical education are taught completely in English.
By the end of fourth grade, students have either made the transition to all English or are eager to do so. And transitioning students when they are able to succeed in English classes is more important to the district than the state’s rate for redesignating children as fluent in English, Palacio said.
State figures show the district’s annual rate for declaring children English-proficient is 2 percentage points below the state average of 6.7 percent. Palacio said the district’s standards for declaring a student proficient are more rigorous than the state’s.
The state requires that children test in the 36th percentile — near the bottom third — on the California Test of Basic Skills in all three categories of reading, math and language to determine redesignation figures.
The district, however, looks at several factors, such as scores on an oral exam, grades and a writing sample to better gauge how a child is doing in English, Palacio said.
In Diane Lopez’s class at Dool Elementary, across town from Mains, two-thirds of her 33 fifth-graders have made the transition to English.
To help the others, Lopez has “English days” on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
On those days, the students are required to answer everything in English.
But on other days, language arts, social studies and science instruction is in Spanish with increasing amounts of English.
Judith Sanchez, 10, is among those who have made the transition, and now she speaks confidently in either language.
“It’s easier to learn in Spanish first because I speak Spanish,”
Judith said. “But I think it will be good to be in English now because I have to learn English.”
Calexico measures its success by transitioning such students as Judith,
and by high graduation rates and low dropout rates. But the district takes care of those students who speak little or no English and come to school later in their academic careers.
There are two “newcomer” classrooms for fourth-and fifth-graders new to the schools. Here students are taught in Spanish and get intense lessons in literature. They attend English classes two Saturdays a month.
In teacher Veronica Medina’s newcomer class, she uses sight and sound to help students understand. She constantly uses a graphic organizer, a stacking set of blocks drawn on a flip chart, to outline characters, plots and themes. Medina offers a real-life lesson as well. She once was a newcomer.
“I came from across the border,” said Medina, whose current classroom was her room in fourth grade. “I know what they’re going through. I know their fears and excitement.
“I tell them that I got called names and I still learned English in a year and a half. I had to show them that a Mexicana can learn it.”
After a year, the newcomers are taught in classes where the instruction is in Spanish with increasing amounts of English.
For new students in high school, there are three courses for English language development to jump-start their transition to English.
And just because they don’t speak English in high school, they won’t be shut out of classes that will help them get to college.
“Everybody has the chance to get the classes needed to go to college,”
Palacio said. “We handhold (the parents and students). There’s almost no excuse to say they don’t know (about college).”
Students hear the message. An average 80 percent of their high school graduates go onto college, with a majority of them going to the local community college.
High school seniors who have gone through the district are the best advocates for learning Spanish first, and they are testaments to the program.
“If you teach all in English, wouldn’t that be slowing them down?”
senior Herbert Rosette asked about the Unz initiative. “They’re going to stay at a lower level, learning the basics. Shouldn’t they learn both languages?”
Senior Fajed Bouomar, who is student body president, knows Calexico’s programs work.
“Spanish is like a bridge to us,” he said. “It guided us to English.”
But can Calexico’s successes with its 7,200 students be duplicated elsewhere?
Garden City, Kan., student population 7,500, is trying.
Four years ago, the small district in the southwest corner of the state copied Calexico’s program to help the growing number of Spanish-speaking students flowing into schools there.
It set up native instruction for kindergarten through fourth grade. It created a newcomer intake center. And it’s even beginning a homegrown teacher program to fill classrooms with bilingual teachers.
The efforts are paying off.
This year, the district will be transitioning its first group of students who started in the first grade. And they are all at grade level and fluent in both languages, said Jim Lentz, the district’s deputy superintendent.
“There is no question in our minds that the program works,”
Garden City’s success proves Calexico is on the right track, said Assistant Superintendent Palacio.
“That’s what I want to say to Mr. Unz,” Palacio said. Garden City “was doing exactly what you want to do, and they’re calling us for help. How much more apple pie can you get than Garden City?”