The May 24 event was translated in its entirety in Spanish — more than 70 percent of the English language learners in the district speak Spanish at home — but district and city officials made a point of emphasizing just how multicultural Mountain View really is. Almost 50 different languages are spoken in the homes of families in the district, and some of those families only recently arrived in this country. Data from the state shows that a high number of English learners speak Mandarin, Russian, Filipino and Hindi.
"Language, in particular, is a key part to belonging to a community," Mayor Ken Rosenberg told parents and students at the ceremony. Rosenberg described how Mountain View's convergence of different languages and culture is something to be celebrated, and that better communication means residents can better share common interests and empathize with one another. The city has also made it a goal to promote socio-economic and cultural diversity over the next two years, he said.
Keeping with the theme of diversity, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph read his speech in Spanish first, with frequent help from a nearby translator to get the pronunciation right. He said the 255 students accomplished "no small feat" in learning English. Pulling that off, he said, should be celebrated the same way we celebrate the Super Bowl.
Mountain View Whisman is home to some 1,300 students who have yet to master English, meaning more than one in four students in the district are still learning the language. That's more than twice the percentage of English learners in neighboring Los Altos and Palo Alto Unified school districts, and a little less than in the Sunnyvale School District to the south. Although a vast majority of English learners fail to meet state standards in English language arts and math, academic performance makes a huge jump once students are reclassified as fluent in English. Last year, 72 percent of students who reclassified met state standards for English language arts, compared to 17 percent of English learners.
The term "English learners" is a catch-all phrase for a very diverse group. The students who shook hands with Mountain View Whisman school board members on stage Wednesday ranged from young children to teens, some of whom recently immigrated to America while others have lived in Mountain View all their lives. Kids representing each school kicked off the event speaking in languages that included Korean, Mandarin, Hindi and Gujarati.
This diversity, though celebrated, also makes teaching English to Mountain View students all the more challenging, said Heidi Smith, the district's director of English language learner programs. Students come from a variety of different backgrounds, experiences and level of education, but they all need to reach the same set of standards for listening, speaking, reading and writing English.
"Some kids come with a very strong grasp of their native language, and others are just fairly literate," Smith said.
The district's English language development department is poised to make its own major changes in the coming years. Rudolph and Heidi Smith, the director of English language learner programs, are considering a switch to a comprehensive, years-long program called the Sobrato Early Academic Literacy (SEAL), which would overhaul classroom curriculum from kindergarten through third grade and promises to improve the speed and quality of language acquisition. Students who have reclassified by middle school have a period for elective classes that would have otherwise been taken up by a language or math support class, although that practice is also under review.
The district's board of trustees, similarly, made it clear that English fluency ought to be achieved at an early age rather than middle or high school. So-called long-term English language learners, who have been in the U.S. school system for more than four years and still aren't fluent in the language, struggle to perform at grade level more than any other student subgroup. Most of these long-term English language learners are reading at a second or third-grade level in middle school, according to a recent staff report.
Board president Jose Gutierrez, speaking to parents and students at the ceremony, said he understands it wasn't easy for a lot of families to reach this milestone in their child's life. For many parents, getting involved in their child's education is a challenge when they're working one or two jobs, are unfamiliar with the U.S. public school system or don't speak English as their native language. He said the Wednesday event marks a "first step" in an ongoing journey through middle school, high school and into college, and emphasized the importance of staying involved.
"It all starts right here with your achievement," he said.
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