Fluency follow-up

Education - Santa Ana Unified conducts an extensive review of how students learning English as a second language are instructed.

SANTA ANA Santa Ana Unified is perhaps the first school district in the state to attempt a painstaking inventory of how English learners are being taught, going classroom to classroom to review lesson plans and class rosters a few months before state investigators will arrive to check for themselves.

The effort, which state officials said could serve as a model for other districts, stems from a court mandate to the state to better monitor education for students who are not fluent in English. Nearly a third of Orange County students and one- fourth of the state’s are learning English as a second language.

You can’t deal with issues if you don’t admit that they’re there,” said Howard Bryan, director of English-language development and bilingual education in Santa Ana, where two-thirds of the 60,000 students are not fluent in English.

The district is among 60 statewide now under review by the Department of Education, state officials said. In April, a Superior Court judge in Sacramento ordered the state to shore up its system, finding that officials had failed to adequately monitor the education of students who are not fluent in English, most of whom are Latino.

For example, the state, blaming budget cuts, canceled or curtailed district reviews in 1998 and 1999, a violation of a 1985 court agreement that officials would monitor services for students who are not fluent in English.

The lack of oversight came at a pivotal time. In 1998, voters passed Proposition 227, which all but ended bilingual education and left districts without state academic standards for a year to teach students who are learning English as a second language.

Most districts immersed students in English-only programs, but law still requires that teachers put students in the right classes and give them help in class so that they can understand the basic curriculum of math, English, science and social studies, officials said. Otherwise, school districts risk losing state and federal funding, officials said.

Santa Ana opted to launch a deep review of its own programs before the state arrived, partly to start fixing any problems on their own, officials said.

Newport-Mesa Unified, for example, is the only other Orange County district under review, but state officials said their visit is already finished. A report will be ready in a few weeks, officials said.

State officials said they will visit Santa Ana in January.

REviews make some staffERS anxious

Meanwhile, every week, dozens of Santa Ana teachers and administrators fan out to schools to examine lesson plans and student records, observe classes and question teachers. The teachers union and the district agreed that teachers will not be named in reports or criticized in public because only their supervisors may evaluate them.

Still, the review has unleashed an undercurrent of uncertainty in the schools.

The staff becomes a little bit nervous,” said Norma Mannion, chairwoman of the English department at Century High School. Will you really see what we’re doing in that period of time? It is nerve-racking to have somebody come in and see a piece of it.”

As Mannion teaches, the reviewers scour her lesson plan and listen carefully as she probes to see if students understand a textbook’s reference to a one-horse town,” an expression in English that does not automatically translate from Spanish, the first language of many of the students.

Is it an insult?” Mannion asks the class, and the students nod. What is he saying?”

To limit putting the school on the defensive, Santa Ana formed teams of reviewers to visit the classrooms, including administrators, representatives from another district school and people from the school itself.

Together, they search for — and hopefully acknowledge — clues that something is amiss. They ask: Does the teacher know if a student is just starting to learn English or whether he or she is nearly fluent? Has the school counselor put him or her in the right class? Do they provide students with instruction they can understand?

You might have a bright kid from Mexico City who should go into calculus,” Bryan said. You can’t say (no) just because they don’t speak English. They have to have access.”

Some issues are already emerging. Many schools need to better organize classes so students can be taught at their English proficiency level, he said. Many classes contain students of varying levels, Bryan said.

Teachers in the core subject areas — math, English, science and social science — also must know each student’s level of fluency. At Century High, for example, most teachers don’t get automatic reports that show the student’s level of English fluency, so they have to search it out for themselves by asking students and checking records. Bryan said the system should change to make it easier for teachers to track students.

23 reports to BE DONE this month

Then there is evidence of success. Teachers use charts to help students summarize information and organize their writing. All tailor their lesson plans to specific state academic standards. The district reviewers are compiling their observations into reports and have 23 to finish this month, Bryan said.

Some, such as Deborah Escobedo, the lawyer for the San Francisco-based Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy Inc., which is handling the lawsuit against the state, are skeptical of having districts review themselves, alleging that in the past the state has not adequately verified their claims.

There are some school districts who took Prop. 227 and said, We no longer have to do anything special for these kids,’ ” she said.

State reviewers said they have doubled their staff and intend to scrutinize districts’ programs.

The bottom line,” said Lauri Burnham, manager of the state unit that is handling the reviews, is that kids get what they’re supposed to be getting.”

Contact Sacchetti at (714) 796-4934 or [email protected]

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