Cari Fifield is one of those 21st century Statue of Liberties: welcoming but also harried, her hands full of forms to be filled out. Give her your Bosnians, your Mexicans, your Sudanese yearning for an American education. Or, if not yearning exactly, at least aware that the law says anyone under 16 must be enrolled in school.

At the beginning of the school year last fall, Fifield’s office at Highland High School was processing three or four new immigrants and refugees a day. That number is now down to three or four a week (a number about equal to those who move or drop out each week). But the net result is still staggering and reflects how much and how fast Salt Lake City is changing.

Within five years, predicts Salt Lake City School District superintendent Darlene Robles, 50 percent of Salt Lake’s students — one out of every two — will speak English as their second language. Many of these students will enter school knowing no English at all. They will speak, instead, Farsi or Dinka or any one of more than 40 languages, 10 more languages than last year. Currently, 28 percent of the district’s students are ESL (English as a second language) students.

There are so many ESL students that the Salt Lake school board earlier this month mandated that within the next few years, every teacher in the district will be required to get some ESL training.

Although nearly every school in the district now has students with limited English proficiency, it is at Highland High that the strain on the system is most obvious. Since 1988, Highland has been the district’s magnet high school for ESL students. This year the number of ESL students is up to 490, more than one-fifth of the school’s total population.

It’s hard to assess — in fact even explain — the ESL situation in Salt Lake City. Far from being a monolith, the acronym covers students at various stages of English proficiency and at all grade levels, kindergarten through 12. It covers students who have never learned to read or write in their own language, and students who may have been taking advanced physics in their home country. It includes students who don’t know a word of English, and students who can speak, read and write in English but not yet well enough to understand the subtleties of Shakespeare. The ESL program includes stand-alone ESL classes, bilingual classes, “sheltered classes” and “mainstream” classes.

To make it even more confusing, the ESL program does not include all the district’s students who are struggling to learn English. West and East high schools, for example, do not have ESL classes but do have hundreds of “limited English proficiency” (LEP) students.

So, it’s hard to get a handle on the problems facing Salt Lake’s non-English-speaking students, and harder still to get a handle on the solutions. But Highland High is a place to start.

The struggle to understand

Visit Maj. Andy Clark’s ROTC class, and you’ll quickly see both the successes and the problems with ESL. It’s 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. Janitors are cleaning up the cafeteria. At the far end of the room, the ROTC class is standing at attention.

Some of Clark’s students speak only halting English. That’s not a problem when the assignment is just to march or stand still. The students — Bosnian, Vietnamese, lanky girls from Sudan in uniforms that are too short — are learning a lot from ROTC about succeeding in life, says Clark. But when the class gathers in the ROTC classroom later to learn about the history of the U.S. rocket program, not speaking English becomes a bigger problem.

“They miss out on all the complex things we’re trying to teach them,” says Clark. “For a lot of them (being at school) is six hours of waiting.”

So, says Clark, “we’ve dumbed down our curriculum. We used to use workbooks. But they were too hard to read. Then we gave them a key to where to find the answers in the text. But we were still having rampant failure. Two years ago we went to a simpler, end-of-the-chapter question and answer. Now we’ve stepped back to the elementary or junior high level. We give them the page number, and they only have to be able to define what the word means.”

Clark is one of a half dozen teachers at Highland who are not trained in ESL but whose classes are now made up largely of ESL students who struggle to understand what their teachers are saying.

By law, explains Highland principal Ken Powell, each beginning ESL student can have three ESL “stand-alone” classes to learn English. He can also be put in “sheltered” classes in subjects like biology and geography (in sheltered classes the subjects are taught in English but at a slower pace, using vocabulary words and strategies that help non-English-speaking students). The law also requires that for some part of their day, ESL students must be mainstreamed into “regular” classes with English-speaking students.

The most “visual” classes work best, classes like art, keyboarding, shop. The problem, says Powell, is that as the number of ESL students increases, “the number of opportunities to spread them out in other classes is limited.” The result is keyboarding classes, for example, in which 90 percent of the students don’t speak English.

“As the percentage of ESL students increases, it’s more difficult to teach,” says Fifield. “So much time is spent on language.”

“I feel like I’m not meeting the needs of any of my students,” says one teacher who asked not to be named. “The ESL students don’t understand me, and the others don’t get any of my attention.”

In her keyboarding class, says one student, “It takes 90 minutes for the teacher to (get them to understand) we’re on the second unit and not to click on ‘instruction’ but onto ‘marketing.’ “

Math in some ways is a visual language, so beginning ESL students have also been mainstreamed into pre-algebra. But even in math it helps to know what the teacher is saying. So here’s what it sometimes looks like in pre-algebra teacher Tom Kingsford’s class. He’s explaining exponents. On the chalkboard he writes “n x n x n x n.” Can you express that another way, he asks his students. “Alejandro? Mario? Jessica?” The becalmed sea of faces stares back. Later, after class, Kingsford flips through a stack of recent quizzes: 0/100, 4/100, 20/100, 0/100.

Out of 30 students in his pre-algebra class, there are 12 “who don’t know a lick of English,” says Kingsford. “Today I got a new boy from Somalia who didn’t know enough to even shake his head. I can’t communicate with him, and he can’t communicate with me. What a helpless feeling. . . .

“Some of these kids have never added, subtracted, multiplied or divided. By the time you think you’re making inroads, they leave. I used to dwell on it and it would make me sick. I’ve hardened myself to it now.”

In some sheltered classes, too, there are “a significant number of students placed into classes that are inappropriate for them,” says geography teacher Warren Brodhead. “I have students who literally don’t speak a word of English. I don’t have time to work with them one on one, so they get lost. . . . A lot of these students are programmed for failure.”

Teachers are frustrated, says Highland journalism teacher Ruth Campbell, who sits on the executive board of the Salt Lake Teachers Association. “These kids are being baby-sat and warehoused every flippin’ day,” she says.

“Our (Highland) administration has bent over backwards to help. But it’s a districtwide problem. The (school) board says to the superintendent, ‘We don’t want to hear about this anymore.’ “

She adds that “teachers have been threatened with losing their jobs if they complain.”

A ripple effect

But that’s just the bad news. In very many ways, says Dale Rees of the district’s Alternative Language Services, ESL is a success. There are more ESL students and former ESL students taking honors classes, for example.

Zaira Guerrero is one of the success stories. She arrived at Highland in the fall of 1998 knowing, she says, only “what’s your name?” and “do you speak English?” But Guerrero had two things in her favor: In Mexico she had done well in school, and her family is supportive of her education. So when she got to America she would, in addition to her days at Highland High, attend evening English classes at the elementary school in her neighborhood. She quickly moved from “pre-level” ESL classes to Level 4. “I’m taking some things serious and they are not,” she says about ESL students who don’t try as hard. “They just want to play.”

Guerrero did well despite the fact that Highland’s ESL classes are overcrowded — as many as 33 students when there should be 15. The overcrowded classes have been particularly hard on ESL students, says teacher Rebecca Bennion. “They come ready to learn. But you watch them close down when the numbers increase.”

Next year Highland plans to reduce the size of its beginning ESL classes. In order to do that, though, it will have to do away with the Level 4 ESL class entirely and provide only one ESL English class for Level 3 students. For the rest of the day the Level 3 students will be sent to regular academic classes, although they have had only two years of English.

“When they get (the basics) under their belt, they’ll be mainstreamed,” says ESL teacher Sandy Horch. “But will they be ready? The literature says ‘no.’ Think of yourself if you went to Japan and you had to learn a new alphabet and new sounds. The other kids would be pulling out their novels and you’re still (in reading skills) at ‘where is the bathroom?’ That’s what these kids are dealing with.”

Research shows it takes seven years to learn a language well enough to be able to learn academic subjects in that language, says Bennion. When students are mainstreamed too early, she says, they appear to know English well — they can speak well enough to be understood — but don’t really have the academic vocabulary. “So they get labeled as lazy, uncooperative or stupid instead of being given help.”

Mainstream teachers, she says, “need to make sure they are using strategies to facilitate comprehension for all students.”

To accommodate the earlier mainstreaming of ESL students at the high school level, and to meet the needs of the growing number of ESL students at all grade levels, the district will now require that all teachers, counselors and other educators be trained in ESL. The current plan is that by the 2003-04 school year, all educators will have taken two ESL courses approved by the district.

Who will pay for this training, how many hours of training will be required, what the training will entail — all this still needs to be worked out, says Rees. In addition, beginning with the 2001-02 school year, all new district hires will either have to be “ESL endorsed” (six to eight college-level ESL
classes) or will have committed to get that endorsement within three years. This will have a ripple effect on the way the state’s universities teach education majors.

But then ripple effect is what this is all about, as the globe’s distant wars and failed economies eventually bring more and more families to America’s schools.

Whether Salt Lake City is doing enough to educate these ESL students is hard to measure. The dropout rate for ESL students at Highland is 15 percent, compared to a non-ESL dropout rate of 5 percent.

And the ones who stay in school? It’s hard to generalize, of course. The bright, motivated students are doing well. If they’ve been in American schools since elementary school or junior high, they’ll probably be doing better than if they started school in the 10th grade. If they come from a family that values education, they’ll have more of a chance.

And the others? “Are they learning enough to survive?” says Fifield. “Yes. Are they learning what employers will want? Probably not.”

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