Paso Robles—Proposition 227 at work: Paso Robles students, teachers adapt to Newcomer Program
A large, colorful United States map dangles from the ceiling in one corner of the classroom. Drawings showing facial expressions are taped to a wall. And over several students’ desks hangs a poster with the lyrics to a cherished childhood song: “On Top of Spaghetti.”
These are some of the visual aids teacher John Hagy uses in his fourth- and fifth-grade classroom at Winifred Pifer Elementary School to help new English speakers better understand the language.
“Vocabulary with pictures is crucial when learning a language,” Hagy said.
In the fall of 2000, the Paso Robles school district began the English-immersion Newcomers Program for students in fourth through 12th grades who have just arrived and who have little or no exposure to English.
“We felt it was taking too long for limited-English students to learn the language,” said Fran Long, the district’s director of special projects. “We’re intensifying English earlier.”
Newcomers is offered in fourth and fifth grades at Winifred Pifer Elementary, in sixth through eighth grades at Flamson Middle School, and in ninth through 12th grades at Paso Robles High School, according to Long.
About 90 students are in Newcomer Programs district-wide.
The effort was started primarily because of the state’s new requirement for high school seniors to take an exit exam before graduation, Long said. The California High School Exit Examination must be taken in English.
The Newcomers classes are taught in English, and have a few differences with regular classes.
“The state requires teachers to be specially trained in dealing with students with limited-English skills,” Long said “They also go at a much slower pace.”
Overall, Long said, the differences between Newcomers and regular classes are subtle enough that the students are developing every day.
Hagy, who has taught bilingual education for five years, speaks conversationally to his 32 students while pointing to objects or motioning with his hands. He teaches them songs to get his students comfortable with English, and speaks Spanish only if necessary.
But for many students in Hagy’s class, learning a new language is almost secondary to simply adapting to a new environment.
“Some of these kids have never even been to school, so they are just learning how to act in class,” Hagy said.
The many challenges Hagy faces are as diverse as the students themselves. Although the majority of his students are Latino, Hagy also has an Egyptian and a Russian student.
Some of his pupils are below grade level. Others have limited reading and writing skills in their native language, while a handful are illiterate in both their native language and in English.
“How do you teach one class with so many learning levels?” Hagy asked.
Newcomer students spend the morning learning basic reading, writing and pronunciation skills. Those who have acquired enough English skills after a year attend a regular fifth-grade class in the afternoon.
Within the year that Hagy has taught Newcomers, he has seen several students’ English skills improve to the point they could move on to regular classes.
One student who is part of such a regular afternoon class is 11-year-old Miguel Arevalo.
“I know a lot more now,” he said in English while fidgetting with a paper on his desk.
Arevalo’s favorite subjects in Hagy’s class are reading, math and using computers. His favorite book, he said, is “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
“I’m teaching my uncles English,” Arevalo said, smiling proudly.
A secondary reason for the program is the intent of Proposition 227 — to eliminate bilingual education in public schools. The district offers bilingual education at several schools if parents request it. Georgia Brown Elementary offers a dual-immersion program in English and Spanish to teach students to become bilingual.
Bauer-Speck, Virginia Peterson and Winifred Pifer schools offer primary language instruction for grades kindergarten through three. Students are taught in their primary language — generally Spanish — with some exposure to English. By the third-grade, students are taught mostly in English and expected to be ready for a regular English class the next year.
Students leaving their schools in June 2002 will be the first to have completed the two years of the Newcomers program.
Winifred Pifer Principal Kirk Smith is excited to offer Newcomers to students and their families.
“I’m enthusiastic about the program,” Smith said. “In two years, these kids can do some remarkable things.”