The Oxnard Elementary School District is one of 12 districts that has been selected by a team of University of California researchers who have applied for funds to study what helps and hurts Spanish-speaking students in their efforts to learn English.
The researchers, who applied for $5 million in federal funding, want to determine the best way to teach English to Spanish-speaking children. If the funding is approved, the team plans to conduct its research in 36 schools throughout the state, working with 120 teachers and 2,800 students.
California educators say the study is especially important now, as school administrators continue to grapple with Proposition 227 and as teachers prepare their students for English proficiency tests and the newly adopted state standards.
“We need long-term studies of these kids,” said Russell Rumberger, director of the UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute. “It seems like Spanish- speaking kids have traditionally had more problems learning English than other kids. That may not be true, but that’s the perception.”
The Oxnard elementary system was selected as one of the sample districts because more than half its students speak limited English. Nearly all of those students are Latino, educators say.
“We’re excited and pleased that they’ve asked us to participate,” said Stephanie Purdy, manager of the district’s English language development. “We feel it’s going to validate that we have a strong program for English language learners. And it’s going to give us research-based input on how we can improve our program and make it even better.”
The UC researchers are applying for money from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the U.S. Department of Education. The two organizations have set aside $9 million for each of five consecutive years to fund nationwide studies on how Spanish-speaking children learn to read and write English.
“What we don’t know is what really works best,” said Peggy McCardle, associate chief of child development and behavior at the institute. “There are some successes out there in bilingual education, but there are so many variables. We want to take a real clear look and see what really works, so eventually this can be translated to the best approach in the classroom.”
Applicants submitted their proposals to the institute in November, and will learn by June whether their studies will be funded. Experts will base their selections on innovation, significance, approach, researchers and appropriate environment, McCardle said.
The California study, designed to begin in January 2001, would compare how students learn English in different settings, from classrooms where the majority of instruction is in Spanish to classrooms where not a word of Spanish is spoken.
Researchers plan to collect their data from school districts in Los Angeles, Sacramento, the Bay Area and Ventura-Santa Barbara counties.
The study would have three components.
Researchers would first track Spanish-speaking student achievement in kindergarten, third, sixth and ninth grades over four consecutive years. They would then analyze various teaching methods and work with teachers on how to help low-achieving students and how to implement the new state standards.
The researchers would also assess the role of family and community in English literacy development by observing Spanish-speaking children in the classroom and at home and in the community. They would also follow a group of students in an after-school computer and writing club.
Rumberger wants the study to differ from others by involving teachers. He hopes the research might lead to improved instruction of Spanish-speaking children in schools across the state.
“We hope to make teachers partners,” he said. “We would give the teachers feedback, and they would use it to direct curriculum.”