A Spanish-speaking sixth-grader’s language-processing problem is so severe he flunks his language arts class.
A Tagalog-speaking Filipino boy, whose syntax is always jumbled, struggles with his history homework.
A Vietnamese second-grader is reluctant to speak up in class because he can’t summon the right words.
In places such as San Jose’s Alum Rock School District, where more than half the children speak little or no English, it’s often tough to tell whether such students are just laboring to learn English or need a speech therapist.
As a result, students’ speech and language problems often are overlooked, masked by the fact that English is their second language. Statewide, white students are at least 60 percent more likely to be identified as having speech and language problems than Hispanic or Asian students, whose home language often is not English, according to the California education department.
“Some kids with language disorders are not being served and that is a disaster,” said Ruben Lopez, a speech expert at California State University-San Bernardino.
The consequences are especially serious in a state where one in four students speaks little or no English — 80 percent of them Spanish speakers. Studies show that students who fail to correct their speech problems early are more likely to drop out.
May affect scores
“If you don’t have appropriate identification,” he said, “kids won’t get the resources to help them learn.”
State education officials say immigrant students’ speech problems often go undetected because overcrowded schools are packed with inexperienced, untrained teachers too harried to notice what can be a tricky diagnostic problem.
Teachers “need to rule out that the learning weakness is not a result of the language issue,” said Allan Lloyd-Jones, a consultant for the state education department. “And, as it gets more complex, there’s more room for error.”
Poor districts such as San Jose’s predominantly Latino Alum Rock face bigger problems. The task of identifying children is compounded by the fact that many teachers speak little, if any, Spanish.
“If these kids are in a class with a teacher who only speaks English and the teacher only hears their limited English, they have no idea what their limitations are in their native language,” said Roxanne Chinn, a district speech therapist.
Services can be slow
Calixto Juarez, a Spanish-speaking sixth-grader, has a language-processing problem so pronounced he was failing two classes. But he wasn’t placed in a special education class until March — five years after his mother pleaded with school officials to get him help. Now, the 12-year-old lags years behind classmates in reading, spelling and math.
“It’s the quiet, well-behaved child that doesn’t speak up that gets overlooked,” said Melinda Fetler, the Sheppard Middle School psychologist who eventually tested him.
Fetler said that some colleagues are reluctant to transfer students to special-education classes because they don’t want to label them.
“Some psychologists back off from identifying children within the Spanish community,” she said, “but that is a cop-out.”
Norma Martinez, an Alum Rock assistant superintendent, said the district tried to rectify these problems by hiring three new psychologists this year, but then two others left.
“Overall, there’s a shortage of psychologists, and it’s a huge challenge for every district,” she said, “We are working as fast as we can.”
Many parents say that diagnosing children is only part of the problem. Special education services, they say, are inadequate. Some teachers have stopped sending children there because they feel too few teachers in those classes speak the child’s language. Only one in five special-education teachers in the district is bilingual.
Eduardo Robledo, a fifth-grade teacher at Goss Elementary School, said he chose not to refer several Latino students because none of the special-ed teachers at his school speaks Spanish.
“Rather than helping these students in my bilingual class, they’re going to flounder in a worse situation,” he said.
Beatrice Valdez-Rivera said she’s still fighting to get her 7-year-old son Jesus the basic help he needs to articulate words well. The rambunctious first-grader was diagnosed with a tongue thrust in kindergarten and has been seeing a therapist twice a week. But an independent doctor detected more language-processing problems and recommended daily half-hour sessions.
“They call me a pushy parent,” Valdez-Rivera said, adding: “They don’t have the personnel.”
Assistant Superintendent Martinez acknowledged that “there’s been a breakdown in the system.” She said the district is trying to correct chronic problems it inherited.
“We are truly trying to put more systems in place to benefit children,” she said. “It will take time to get all these pieces in place.”
Jesse Aguirre, a psychologist, welcomes any improvements that will help non-native speakers with legitimate speech problems get help. But he said many other students are misidentified because someone mistakes their language struggle for a speech problem. This can be just as damaging: “When you label them disabled, they’re stigmatized for life,” he says, “and that’s another obstacle they have to face.”
Contact Jessica Portner at [email protected] or (408) 920-2729