English Skills Limited

Different languages on rise in city schools

The number of non-English speaking students in Modesto City Schools is soaring. Nearly 30 percent of youngsters in elementary school, 20 percent in junior high and 12 percent in high school have limited or no English skills.

This year 6,656 students in Modesto’s largest district are still learning English, according to statistics released Monday night. That number has risen steadily since the 1992-93 school year when there were only 5,783.

Most of the those youngsters speak Spanish (4,281), but there also are 44 other native languages spoken by students in the district. That includes Cambodian (1,058), Lao (368), Hmong (354), Hindi (138), Vietnamese (110) and Assyrian (69).

“We have quite a challenge on our hands,” said Ed Lee, the district’s bilingual education supervisor.

Lee shared statistics with school board trustees showing that Modesto City Schools has one of California’s largest enrollments of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students. It ranks 31st out of more than 1,000 school districts in the state.

“We have large concentrations of LEP students at some of our elementary school sites,” Lee noted.

At Marshall, Robertson Road and Wright elementaries, for instance, more than half of the students have limited-English skills.

Bret Harte, Franklin, Kirschen, Pearson, Shackelford and Tuolumne have more than 40 percent of its children learning English.

The bilingual education program designed to serve those students was the topic of Monday’s special school board workshop.

Lee explained how the district’s primary goal is to teach the youngsters English. But until they become English proficient, he said, the schools teach them core subjects — like reading, math and science — in their native language.

That concerns some school board members.

“I get disturbed when I visit, especially kindergarten classes and everything is in Spanish,” trustee Kate Nyegaard said. “Why are we starting them off in Spanish? Why aren’t we starting in English?”

Nyegaard questioned the success rate of bilingual-class students compared with those who are placed into English-speaking classes.

“Politically I know I’m not correct,” Nyegaard said. “But we’re taking these children and we’re isolating them (in bilingual classes) and that’s not right.”

Trustee John Hollis agreed: “I think we need to teach them in English, not just keep teaching them in their native language and hope it will cross over.”

Lee explained the philosophy and reasoning behind teaching youngsters academics in the language they understand while they learn English.

“Their English is going to come because we’re offering it on a daily basis,” Lee said. “And while we’re doing that, we don’t want to stop this learning of content (in other subjects).”

Bilingual education teacher Raquel Flores also defended the district’s program.

“I think you have the misconception that we’re teaching Spanish,” Flores said. “We’re teaching the curriculum (used throughout the district) in the child’s first language.”

In third grade, Flores said, the students are introduced to reading in English.

“When they make that transition to English, they know how to read (because they’ve learned how in their native language),” Flores explained. She said bilingual education is better for youngsters than being put into an English-speaking class. “They’re not sitting there with their mouths closed not knowing what’s going on around them.”

Modesto City Schools’ bilingual program will be subjected to an extensive compliance review by the state next year to determine if it is meeting students’ needs.

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