Social promotion's on a two-way street

EDUCATION: Though the policy generally is gone, several districts will let limited-English students advance.

Orange County educators are keeping a form of social promotion for limited-English students, a position backed by the state despite its mandate against the practice.

The educators say the different policies for English learners are fair because it can take up to five years to fully learn a foreign language and meet grade-level standards. Being held back could discourage English learners, most of whom are Hispanic, a group whose school dropout rate is almost three times that of whites, they say.

California last year called for an end to social promotion _ the practice of promoting students based on their age rather than their academic progress _ in a law that requires school districts to create and enforce minimum standards for promoting students in grades 2-8, starting when school ends this June.

But a 1998 California Department of Education advisory said it would be “inappropriate” for districts to judge English learners on material they haven’t been taught, even though they aren’t exempt from the social promotion law.

More than a year later, the advisory has spawned a flurry of different policies for promoting English learners.

Capistrano Unified and Fullerton School districts, for example, will promote students with less than three years of English instruction based primarily on how fast they are learning their new language rather than academic performance alone.

Saddleback Valley Unified will consider how long students have been learning English, test scores and language proficiency _ even in their native language _ before deciding to hold a child back.

Students, especially those on waivers in bilingual education programs, may be tested in Spanish to see whether they are making academic progress.

The law ending social promotion follows years of complaints from the business community that many high school graduates lack basic skills. Many educators opposed the measure, saying students who are held back are more likely to get discouraged and drop out of school.

At the beginning of this school year, many districts blanketed parents with letters informing them of the law. Schools this semester have begun flagging students who are failing and getting them extra help in an attempt to prevent them from being held back.

“The law does not address (English learners) at all,” said Stephanie Paggi, curriculum director at Garden Grove Unified, where English learners comprise nearly half the enrollment next year, and the majority in some schools.

“(But) when it’s the majority of your population, you have to consider it. ” Claudia Dominguez was relieved that her 8-year-old son won’t be judged on language alone at Gates Elementary School in Lake Forest.

He was flagged as at risk of being held back, but is making progress in an after-school program, she said.

“He has a hard time with English,” said Dominguez, who is trying to learn English along with her son, struggling with him at home over the words in his school books.

“At home, everything’s in Spanish. With his aunts and uncles, everything’s in Spanish, and his friends mix both English and Spanish. “

But some parents said they wouldn’t mind if their children were held back because they didn’t know English. That would mirror schools in Mexico, which wouldn’t promote them if they failed one class.

“It would be fine with me, because they’re going to need the language in this country,” said Maricruz Arreola, whose three daughters moved here from Guanajuato, Mexico, in August.

School districts suffering from overcrowding, such as Anaheim City, also have concerns about space. More than half of all pupils there last year were English learners.

“Numbers-wise, if we started retaining all of these children, we’d have to build new schools,” said Phyllis Reed, Anaheim City director of pupil services. “But that doesn’t mean we’re just going to promote kids because we don’t have space for them. ” Critics say the different policies for English learners are puzzling, and that all students should be subject to the same standards.

“If we’re not careful, we go back to social promotion for those folks who aren’t fully English fluent,” said Lloyd Davis, a school board member in Buena Park School District, which is scheduled to review its own policy shortly.

But others, including some early opponents of bilingual education, say schools need to give English learners a chance to catch up after Proposition 227, the voter referendum that ended bilingual education in 1998 except for those schools that secured waivers to continue it.

“Common sense tells me that teachers should use their professional judgment in those areas,” said Kim Guth, a board member in Fullerton School District who supported Prop. 227.

“The (English) immersion thing is a long process,” said Bill Lewis, a board member in Orange Unified, which voted to end bilingual education in 1997, before Prop. 227.

“You gotta cut ’em a little bit of slack,” he said.

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