At Mountain View Whisman, teachers often are confronted by Hispanic students who speak no English, hear no English at home and live in a neighborhood that is made up of almost 100 percent Spanish speakers. In many of these households, reading in any language is seldom a pastime that parents pass on to their children.
Historically, teachers know there is no way these children are going to learn at the same speed as their white or Asian classmates. But the No Child Left Behind Act, with its noble goal of bringing all children up to an acceptable level of "annual yearly progress," often winds up snagging schools in its web of bureaucratic sanctions. The result can be particularly unfair for districts like Mountain View Whisman.
In the district's latest annual report, Hispanic students trailed the state and county average, with barely 30 percent performing at a proficient level, compared to 80 percent for whites and Asians.
Clearly, there is work to do, and Assistant Superintendent Mary Lairon agrees. "It is bad in English language arts, but worse in math," she said. "It is just not good."
To its credit, the district is hardly accepting the results as inevitable. Teachers are tackling the problem head on, with what amounts to a full court press to spread English language proficiency among students and families.
For example, special committees for both English language and math were formed this year, and the study of English is being incorporated into everyday lessons. Also, an effort is being made to raise cultural awareness among staff members so they understand "how being an immigrant affects your learning," according to Judy Crates, director of English language development at the district.
Immigrant children themselves are being asked to share their experiences with teachers more often, Crates said. And parents of pre-kindergarten students are being invited to classes to discuss how they can become involved at the school. And there will be summer classes for any student who needs help to improve performance in math.
It is not likely that these approaches will bring the performance level up dramatically, at least not right away. But we believe these initiatives are appropriate. Parents and the general public should remember that overall, math and English scores in the district are up 7 percent, to 60 percent for students scoring proficient or above.
But the challenge for this elementary school district is to raise all boats, including those of Hispanic children, who will never fulfill their dreams if they don't learn the basics of English and math.