Overcoming the Language Barrier


By Barbara Ferry | The New Mexican
December 18, 2005

Ivan Cornejo, 18, is a freshman at Santa Fe Community College who hopes to become a lawyer. But as a seventh-grader at DeVargas Middle School, he was a failing student who wanted to drop out of school.

Having moved to Santa Fe from Aguascalientes, Mexico, at age 8, Ivan said he struggled to learn English and make friends at Kaune Elementary School. By junior high, he spoke English, but couldn't understand the material being taught in his classes. He started skipping school, though he kept showing up for his English as a Second Language class, where he enjoyed being with other immigrant kids and said the teacher "would say nice things about us and tell us we were good students."

In 2003, federal civil-rights investigators from the U.S. Department of Education visited 12 Santa Fe schools to assess how students such as Ivan, whose native language was not English, were being educated. The visit was not prompted by a complaint, but rather by an agency decision to look at school districts with changing demographics.

Santa Fe fit the bill because the number of students who are not proficient in English, mostly Spanish-speaking Mexican and Central American immigrants, has been growing. Such students may now make up 30 percent of Santa Fe's student body, though because of problems with testing and record-keeping, district officials don't know exactly how many students classified as English Language Learners attend their schools.

The investigators found discrimination against students who lack proficiency in English. Their report describes situations similar to what Ivan experienced: students placed in English-language science and history classes "where they cannot understand what is being taught."

Because students learning English were being placed in inappropriate classes, the report states, they "often fail a class or have to repeat it or even drop out."

The investigators also found greater student-to-teacher ratios in bilingual classes, delays in testing students in language proficiency and an underrepresentation of English Language Learners in gifted programs and extracurricular activities.

The district submitted a plan to address the problems identified in the report, and the Department of Education signed off on the plan. (School officials asked Wednesday for a copy of the plan were unable to locate one that day and did not return calls Friday.)

But two years later, some bilingual and English as a Second Language teachers believe education for the growing number of immigrant students has taken a step backward.

The district is still struggling to figure out such basic information as how many English Language Learners attend its schools. A proposal to raise stipends for bilingual teachers to help with recruitment and retention was nixed among competing priorities. And last spring, the district eliminated the position of bilingual specialist, a job that had been held by a woman completing a doctorate in the field.

"It's the worst I've ever seen it," said Polly Beckmon-Zazueta, a second-grade bilingual teacher at César Chávez Elementary School, where about half of the classes in the lower grades are bilingual. "The needs of Spanish-speaking students in the district have blatantly not been dealt with."

However, David Call, the kindergarten teacher for Agua Fría Elementary's dual-language program, said he is "cautiously optimistic" the situation may improve. Since the beginning of the school year, members of the bilingual task force have been regularly meeting with Associate Superintendent Paula Dean, he said.

Call said the administration has a new sense of openness. "They are no longer afraid to discuss the current state of things."

"It's not pretty," Call said. "But acknowledging there is a problem is the first step toward solving it."


The district reported to the state Public Education Department that it had 2,409 English Language Learners during the 2003-2004 school year, a decrease from previous years. But officials acknowledge that number isn't accurate, and the true number is probably much higher.

"I think it's going to be closer to 4,000," said Larry Walling, the district's coordinator of research, data, accountability and testing.

The district will report its 80th-school-day student count to the state in early January, and thanks to efforts to clean up the data, the new number will be much closer to reality, Walling said.

If his prediction of 4,000 turns out to be right, that would mean about 30 percent of the district's students are not proficient in English.

Walling, who joined the district in 2004, said the district historically has not done a good job keeping track of students who need bilingual education. "When we look at our database, we see kids who are entered twice," he said. "We see kids who were not tested who should have been tested."

Walling said he does not know all the reasons for the poor record keeping. "I don't know that historically the program was prioritized," he said.

The district seeks to identify students with limited proficiency in English by giving parents a form to fill out indicating what language they speak at home. Students from families who speak a language other than English are tested for oral, written and verbal fluency in English.

The district is required to report the number of English Language Learners it has to the state.

Walling said the district has hired a data-entry specialist, Maribel Acosta, whose job it is to create a "much more accurate database." "She is making sure the kids who need to be tested are tested and that the kids who need to be exited from the program are exited," Walling said. "It's coming together."

'No one at the helm'

The district decided at the end of the last school year not to rehire its bilingual specialist Catherine Collins, who had only been on the job for six months. Collins said she was told last spring that her position was being eliminated.

Beckmon-Zazueta, who has advocated for stronger bilingual programs for nine years as she has held various positions in the district, was angered by the decision. "In a district this large, with this many students who are learning English, we need a full-time bilingual director," Beckmon-Zazueta said. "How can any bilingual program work without a leader? It's a travesty."

The district has boosted its bilingual teaching ranks by hiring teachers from Spain and Mexico. But Beckmon-Zazueta charges the program has suffered from not having a coordinator.

Collins, who recently completed a doctorate at The University of New Mexico, now works for the state Public Education Department as a reading specialist. In her short tenure at the district's central office, Collins said, she tried to work with schools to find ways to "creatively use all their staff," especially in south-side schools where the shortage of bilingual teachers is especially acute.

"(The district) doesn't have anyone specially trained in bilingual education, and that was my area of expertise," Collins said. "Right now, there's no one at the helm."

Without a bilingual director, Call said, the district's programs lack consistency, and no one evaluates existing programs.

The district needs to acknowledge that "30 percent of our kids learn differently," Call said.

How much English?

Collins, who previously was a bilingual teacher at Ortiz Middle School, said Ivan Cornejo's experience is typical.

"When (students) start middle school, the pool of bilingual teachers is almost nil," she said. Students suffer from both "a lack of teachers who can deliver content in Spanish and teachers' not having effective training in strategies that can help Spanish-speaking kids."

"We're cutting kids off at their knees," she said.

Collins said her fellow educators sometimes fail to understand the different stages of second-language acquisition. "They think that when a child can speak English, he or she can do academic content work in English," Collins said.

"As a result, we have so many kids who are failing and many who drop out."

Ivan Cornejo might have become one of those kids. But after several weeks of skipping classes, he said his teachers caught up with him and called a conference with his parents. His parents, who had been unaware of his ditching, reacted calmly. "They didn't get angry or punish me or ground me or anything. They just said, "We came to this country to have a better life. If you aren't going to take advantage of education, you are going to regret it."

"I felt so guilty," Ivan recalls. "That was when I decided to stay in school."

Ivan said the meeting also sparked a positive response from his teachers. While previously he had not participated in class, felt left out and was getting terrible grades, his teachers became more supportive after the meeting. "Instead of giving me their back, they were trying to help me out."

But it wasn't until he was in high school, Ivan said, that he felt comfortable in classes taught in English. That makes sense, Collins said, because according to research, academic-language acquisition takes five to seven years.

While Ivan said he found a haven in ESL classes, Claudia Krause-Johnson, previously the principal of DeVargas, sees problems in the way some ESL classes in the district are taught. Krause-Johnson, now principal of Santa Fe High School, once taught German to students from all over the world in her native Germany. In those classes, she spoke only German. At DeVargas, she said, ESL students were allowed to speak Spanish. They may have felt comfortable, Krause-Johnson said, but they weren't learning enough English.

Competing demands

Overseeing bilingual education is one of the many responsibilities of Denise Johnston, the former principal of Carlos Gilbert Elementary School, who took over as co-director of curriculum and instruction about two weeks ago.

Among the other items on her plate: overseeing curriculum at the elementary level, Indian education, libraries, art and music, Reading First and summer school.

Despite her long list of tasks, Johnston said, she has spent much of her time during her first days on the job delving into the complex world of bilingual education. "My main goal is to really make sure we get a handle on what's going on in the district," she said.

But getting an answer to even a simple-sounding question such as how many teachers in the district are delivering bilingual content has proved difficult, Johnston said. She requested the information so the teachers could get paid their annual stipend, but as of last week hadn't been able to get a clear answer.

Reports on bilingual teachers from the state and the district "didn't jibe," she said. "It's very frustrating. There are so many things we need to clean up."

Stipends: A sore point

The stipends paid to bilingual teachers are another sore point. Certified bilingual and ESL teachers who are working in those areas are paid $1,100 above their regular salaries. While some districts, such as Las Vegas, N.M., pay less, and others, such as Rio Rancho, pay no stipend, Albuquerque Public Schools pays bilingual and ESL teachers $500 just for having a certification and $2,500 if they provide content in those areas.

"It's no secret that we have to be more competitive if we want to hire and retain bilingual teachers," said Agua Fría's Call. "Raising stipends is a way to get more teachers, period."

New law, new accountability

Santa Fe schools received $1.9 million in state bilingual-education funds for the current school year.

The state funds bilingual programs according to a formula based on the number of students served. A student who received one hour a day of bilingual instruction generated an extra $250 per year for the school district, according to last year's formula.

César Chávez's Beckmon-Zazueta said the district is sacrificing funding by not testing and serving more students with bilingual education.

"If we could identify those students properly, we could get a lot more funds," she said. "We're not serving kids, and we're losing money we could be getting from the state."

But Johnston said the district can only get reimbursed for providing one of several models of bilingual education allowed by the state. While some schools are trying creative ways to stretch their limited resources, she said, they don't necessarily qualify for funding under the state's guidelines.

A new bilingual-education law, signed after last year's legislative session, requires new progress reports and accountability for districts using bilingual funds, said Gladys Gurule-Herrera, the bilingual-education director for the Public Education Department.

Bilingual funds go into the school district's general coffers, and previously, there was "no documentation to show how the districts were using the funds," Gurule-Herrera said.

She is working on the first report on the districts' use of those funds and said it will be finished in January.

The new state law also requires training for all school personnel, not just bilingual teachers, in strategies for educating English Language Learners. Districts that have actually accomplished this, such as the Gadsden Independent School District in Anthony, N.M., are showing progress, state officials say.

Achievement gap

The new bilingual-education law also requires that districts report on the academic achievement of students in bilingual programs.

Some data is already being reported for the federal No Child Left Behind Act. While the overall performance by Santa Fe students on standardized tests is low, achievement of English Language Learners is lower. At Capital High School, which has a large number of English Language Learners, 10.8 percent of students were proficient in math in 2004, but less than 2 percent of English Language Learners were. In reading, the overall proficiency rate was 36 percent, while it was 13 percent for students learning English.

Some teachers attribute English Language Learners' low scores to a federal requirement that students be tested in English three years after they enter the school system, but many such students haven't become proficient in the language in that amount of time.

When he started at Santa Fe High, Ivan Cornejo said, the school had 43 English as a Second Language students, a tight group that was "always, always, always together." He credits his ESL teacher, Virginia Gonzales-Munch, for helping him get through high school and encouraging him to become involved in ENLACE, a college-preparation program for Latino students.

Gonzales-Munch said she strives to end the isolation felt by many immigrant students by helping them connect to the rest of the school. In her ESL class, Ivan went on field trips to the state Capitol, tutored students at Nava Elementary and sang Christmas carols in English.

Gonzales-Munch said this year the number of ESL classes at Santa Fe High was cut, and students had to be turned away.

As Ivan made his way through high school, he said, some ESL students went back to Mexico, some of the girls got pregnant and left school, and other students dropped out to go to work or because they were doing poorly in school.

"There were less and less of us each year. It was really sad," he said recently at Starbucks as he sat holding the baby of a friend who had dropped out of Santa Fe High when she became pregnant.

Only six of the 43 ESL students who started high school with him graduated, Ivan said. Of the six, only three, including Ivan, made it into college.

Ivan believes, despite the problems, that Santa Fe schools still offer opportunities to immigrant students not found in his native Mexico. "Is it better here? Yes and no. There are opportunities that don't exist in Mexico. But a lot of students who come here can't find themselves."

The district has planned a study session to discuss bilingual education and hear recommendations from the bilingual task force from 4 to 6 p.m. Jan. 12 at its headquarters, 610 Alta Vista St.

"My sense is that it will be a very passionate board meeting," Johnston said.


Contact Barbara Ferry at 995-3817 or bferry@sfnewmexican.com.