High school students who are newcomers to this country and don’t speak English fluently may face the biggest challenge of all, given they have the shortest time in which to learn the language well enough to graduate.

Some teachers are concerned that Proposition 227 — the measure that restricted bilingual education — presents too big a challenge for newcomers, in light of the estimates of many educators who say it takes between five and seven years to become fluent in a second language.

Local high school teachers who work with these students say while there is some anecdotal evidence the students are making gains as a result of being immersed into English-only classes, it’s too early to call the law a success. “We have more students staying in school and graduating,” said Ruth Madocks, who teaches at Arroyo Grande High School, which with nearly 3,200 students is the largest in San Luis Obispo County. She teaches all of the school’s 45 newcomers who don’t speak English.

At Shandon High School, whose 100 students make it the smallest public high school in the county, teacher Rick Acebo has similar observations.

“The kids are doing better in classes,” he said. “A lot better, I’d say.”

The district has spent more money educating students the state classifies as English learners — in this county, almost all of these students are native speakers of Spanish. Shandon has added two classroom aides to Acebo’s daily, 45-minute classes for 12 new students.

Arroyo Grande students receive more English daily. Madocks said they now get four periods a day in English classes for the first year — versus two or three in the pre-Proposition 227 days — plus classes in math and physical education.

“They can’t really take anything else, because they don’t know the language,” Madocks said.

Second-year students typically take three English classes a day, and then fewer later as they become more fluent. They take the required subjects they miss during the school year — social studies, science and others — in summer school.

“The only thing we’re doing differently is we’re trying to move students more quickly into an intensive English program and out into the regular mainstream,” Madocks said.

This is being done in response to the law, she said, but also to prepare more students to take the state’s annual exams and the high school exit exam. Current sophomores are the first students who will have to pass the exit test to earn their high school diplomas.

“I’m hopeful we can get them through it,” Madocks said. “It just means I’m going to have to teach more.”

This is the first year English learners can no longer get waivers from taking either set of exams, she said. Her bigger worry is how her students will do on the exit exam, even though she anticipates all 17 of her current seniors will graduate.

“We’re going to make all the effort we can to give them as much English as they need to pass it,” she said.

Beatrice Schumm, a classroom aide in Shandon, is also alarmed.

“It’s kind of scary to see what they have in front of them,” she said. “The challenge is bigger than the time and the resources we have.”

Jeff Ballinger covers K-12 education for The Tribune and can be reached at 781-7908.

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