Many bilingual students taking SAT in Alameda

ALAMEDA — A record number of Alameda students who have a bilingual background are taking the Scholastic Assessment Test, the gateway to four-year universities and colleges, despite the fact that some of them are still grappling with language barriers.

Although the district does not have a traditional bilingual program — meaning that Alameda does not offer classes that are taught in languages other than English — it has a large percentage of students who are fluent or understand another language other than English.

While many of the Alameda students don’t have full fluency in the English language, they are taking the college entrance exam in greater numbers than their statewide and national counterparts.

Twenty-two percent of Alameda students whose first language isn’t English took the 1997 SAT compared to 8 percent nationally, according to the district’s testing office. In California, 19 percent in the same category took the test.

At the same time, however, counselors underscore the difficulty that they say some bilingual students have in taking the test, especially its verbal section.

According to the Department of Education, Alameda has 1,906 LEP — or limited English proficient students. Of this number, 4.64 percent were redesignated last year as English proficient and mainstreamed into regular English from English Language Development, or ELD, classes. These classes contain more creative and non-traditional teaching methods to explain lessons instead of relying solely on reading and writing.

The program gives a lot of bilingual support to quickly move students into English, said Linda Cabral, head of the multi-lingual program.

High school counselors credit the high SAT participation rates to Alameda High School being an official test site, the district offering prep classes for the last two years and teachers recruiting actively long before the test is administered.

Still, bilingual students are encouraged to prepare outside of school.

“It is admittedly difficult for kids who don’t speak English at home to do well sometimes on the verbal part of the SAT,” said John Maiers, a counselor at Alameda High School. “One thing I tell our kids is you have to read and write a lot of English. The more you do that, the better you get.”

Alameda High School senior Laarni Obis is a highly motivated bilingual student who took the SAT despite trying to acquire more English skills.

The 18-year-old emigrated from the Phillipines to the United States in 1993. She attended Lincoln Middle School in Alameda and briefly attended Mt. Eden High School in Hayward before settling at Alameda High School.

Although she has not been officially redesignated out of English Language Development classes, she has opted out of the program. Obis, 18, is fluent in Tagalog, a language she speaks at home.

“I was struggling when I was doing the verbal because I know a second language,” Obis said.

Half of the six SAT test sections are verbal and involve reading comprehension, vocabulary and word analogies. Unlike six of her friends with similar English skills, it was never an option for Obis not to take the SAT.

“My friends don’t plan to take the SAT because they have more of a familiarity in their first language and want to attend a university in their native country,” she said. “For me, there is more opportunity here.”

A student like Obis is rare, said Jennie Brook, a program coordinator for students acquiring English at Alameda High School. Most students who take the SAT are in the advanced level of ELD classes, or have been redesignated, Brook said.

Out of all the students at Alameda High School, 30 are at the beginning or intermediate level of ELD classes, 70 students are in advanced level and 35 to 40 like Obis have opted out of the program but are eligible for ELD classes.

Brook added that although the high school encourages all students to take the SAT no matter how proficient in English they are, she also warns students not to get discouraged if scores turn out low.

“It can be a good thing, but it can be traumatic if a student doesn’t do very well. Sometimes we encourage students (still developing English skills) to go to a community college where they will get two more years of English to get up to the level (where they are completely English proficient),” Brook said.

“I don’t think there was a time when I took the SAT and mixed the two languages,” said West End High’s Myle Phan, 16, who is fluent in Vietnamese and English. “Of course the test is challenging, but it is challenging because of the content, not because it is in English.”

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