Mountain View Voice

News - March 9, 2012

Closing the gap

MV Whisman works to increase proficiency of its English learners

by Nick Veronin

English learners now account for 40 percent of the total student population in Mountain View's elementary and middle schools, and while some progress is being made, officials admit it is a struggle to bring all of these students up to speed.

Nearly 500 more non-English-speaking students enrolled in the Mountain View Whisman School district over the past four years — bringing the total English-learning population to 1,989 out of 4,937 total students.

While the majority of the district's 136 white English learners have been earning moderate to high scores on the state's English proficiency test, the 1,528 English-learning Hispanic students have consistently lagged behind, hovering in the beginner to moderate range.

District officials are aware of the performance gap, and are working to close it, said Phyllis Rodgers, director of English language learners and continuous improvement for the district. By stepping up its professional development programs for elementary and middle school teachers, and by reaching out to Hispanic parents directly, Rodgers added, the district is seeing some success, even though it might appear otherwise.

"It looks like maybe we're not making progress, but we are," she said. "It's just not as high as we'd like. Obviously we would like to have more of our kids be successful."

Between the 2008-09 school year and the current 2011-12 session, the population of English learners has grown by 482 — from 1544 to 2026 — in the local elementary and middle schools, according to district data.

All English language learners in the state are required to take the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which measures English proficiency. The test breaks these students into five categories: beginner, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced and advanced.

Between 11 and 14 percent of the district's English learners have been scoring in the advanced level rate for the past four years, according to the district's report, compared to 30 to 33 percent of white students over the same time period. Hispanic students fared poorly, with only 7 to 10 percent scoring "advanced" on the test.

Rodgers attributes the gulf in performance to a number of factors, the most significant of which are socioeconomic.

Looking at registration data, Phyllis said, the parents of white English language learners tend to be college-educated professionals, while the parents of Hispanic students are often service workers and laborers. "Very few" have a college degree, and some don't have a high school diploma, she said.

On the bright side, Rodgers said progressively fewer Hispanic English learners fell into the beginner category since 2008-09. Four years ago, 21 percent of English-learning Hispanic students in the district fell into the beginner category, a rate that dropped to 16 percent in the following two school years. And in 2011-12, only 12 percent of Hispanic students were in the beginner category.

Rodgers attributes this to an increase in professional development of elementary and middle school teachers, more classes for English language learners and a new "systematic English language development plan," which works on teaching novices basic conversational English, as well as grammar and syntax. When a student demonstrates that he or she is ready, a teacher shifts focus of the lessons from casual conversations to more academic language skills.

"It looks like the effort we've been putting into professional development has really been starting to pay off," she says.

Additionally, a number of parent literacy courses — offered in conjunction with the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and held at local schools — have been helping parents improve their English skills. The idea, Rodgers said, is that if a parent can't speak English in the home, that same parent isn't going to be able to help his or her child learn.

"To be successful," she said, "you really do need to know English. It's a gateway. If you don't have command of English, you're definitely going to be at a disadvantage."

The response to these parent literacy courses has been strong and enthusiastic, Rodgers said. "We've never seen anyone who didn't want to help their kids."

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