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Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series about English learners in Santa Monica-Malibu schools.

The eighth-grade student has begun showing signs of trouble.

The longtime Santa Monica-Malibu school district pupil, deemed proficient in math in fifth grade, slipped to below basic the next year. Reading scores lack progress. Grades have dropped precipitously.

But the child has been enrolled in the district for nine years, has been present on 98 percent of school days and has no suspensions or major behavioral issues.

“This person is invisible to us,” district administrator Irene Gonzalez-Castillo said.

The student — and the student’s peers — became a little more visible last month when the Board of Education examined how the district serves its English learners.

Gonzalez-Castillo used the anonymous case study to highlight the challenges of determining the best academic pathways for students with varying degrees of fluency in the district’s primary language.

About 9 percent of SMMUSD students (1,020) are considered English learners, according to Evan Bartelheim, the district’s director of assessment. They speak 32 different languages and come from 50 different countries. Nearly two-thirds of them live in Spanish-speaking homes. Some 70 percent were born in the U.S.

“Underlying all of this is the relationship component,” Bartelheim said. “We need to know who they are and their needs.”

The district also has 184 long-term English learners — students in grades 6-12 who have been in SMMUSD schools for at least six years but who are still classified as below basic in language arts. That figure includes 74 at Santa Monica High School.

According to Gonzalez-Castillo, who cited research by Laurie Olsen, these students tend to struggle academically, are “stuck” at intermediate rubric levels and aren’t engaged in class despite showing proficiency in social language. The likelihood that a long-term English learner completes a-g college requirements is just 20 percent.

They have a desire to continue education after high school, Gonzalez-Castillo said, but often they “don’t recognize they don’t have the skills … to be successful in college and career. They don’t realize they don’t have the courses and the skills to get there.”

As the district’s English learners gain fluency, they are evaluated and reclassified with the hope that they won’t need extra help all the way through high school.

But the district is relatively conservative when it comes to moving students from one proficiency level to the next — its rates are lower than those of the county and state.

“There’s a lot of subjectivity in reclassifying,” board vice president Jose Escarce said. “What’s better for students? Are we taking the right approach (in being conservative)?”

Gonzalez-Castillo acknowledged that the district’s system for keeping tabs on students after they advance through language assistance programs is imperfect.

“We know that (these students) struggle with reading and writing,” she said. “We need to know these students deeply and make good decisions about reclassifications.”

But, she added, “After reclassification, we don’t have a good system for keeping track of them.”

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, or on Twitter.

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