Students leave Samohi after school. (File photo)

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

The student had come 2,500 miles from Guatemala to the Santa Monica-Malibu school district, a traumatic transition in and of itself.

Already lacking in social and emotional support, the student was struggling to overcome language barriers.

Oscar de la Torre relayed the the student’s story last month as he and his fellow Board of Education members debated how the school district should develop the skills of its English learners, evaluate their progress and assist them beyond the classroom.

Improved testing criteria, native-language assessment and parent engagement were among the ideas floated by the board for helping the district’s English learners, who make up about 9 percent of the student population.

The California English Language Development Test is used to identify students with limited English proficiency, determine their skill levels and measure their progress. The number of SMMUSD students taking the test has declined significantly over the last decade, dropping from 1,823 in 2002-03 to 1,079 in 2013-14, according to state data.

Determining where to place students and when to remove language support — and monitoring students once they’ve advanced — are complicated steps that typically involve analyses of students’ grades and standardized test scores as well as meetings with families, officials said.

According to Irene Gonzalez-Castillo, the district’s director of elementary curriculum and instruction, state officials are looking to revise language surveys to extract more accurate information about students’ skills in their home tongues.

Board member Jose Escarce said testing proficiency in a student’s native language would help the district better understand the student’s overall academic abilities. He noted that many children know “kitchen Spanish” — used in informal conversations with family — but that they might not necessarily have a strong command of the home language.

Currently, native-language testing usually occurs only at the beginning of a student’s time in the district and sometimes reveals deficits in both English and the student’s home language, Gonzalez-Castillo said.

Escarce said it’s strange that language learners who have the same academic characteristics as English speakers are treated differently.

“If it leads to rethinking what we’re doing, that’s a good thing,” he said. “These students are so much more like regular students. Testing them in their native language shows they’re not proficient at all.”

Meanwhile, de la Torre advocated for an increased emphasis on parent engagement.

“Can we help the parents improve their English skills?” said de la Torre, who recalled learning English without assistance from his parents. “That would be important to help students in the house.”

He also suggested exploring how the district could use its community liaisons to help break down language barriers.

“When we talk about parent engagement, what do we mean?” de la Torre asked. “How do we define that?”

Added board member Maria Leon-Vazquez: “It’s hard for them to understand what their children lack.”

It would be helpful if the district’s literacy coaches knew languages other than English and Spanish, board member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein said. Although 65 percent of the district’s English learners come from Spanish-speaking homes, several dozen other languages are spoken in the district.

Board president Laurie Lieberman said it’s possible that the issues facing English learners are common among other low-achieving students in the district.

“I wonder whether the keys for all of these students aren’t similar,” she said, “and then, for each group, some layers (of intervention) are appropriate. … But it’s very fuzzy. That’s one of the backdrops.”

Added board member Craig Foster: “At what point does failure to transition out of this program indicate there’s an overall learning issue rather than we just haven’t handle the language part? At some point, it’s probably not about the language.”

Terry Deloria, assistant superintendent for educational services, cautioned that student progress in English proficiency can have negative side effects.

“You can end up in a situation where there’s not enough language for children and families to communicate,” she said.

She added that model language programs help students develop their skills in their home language as well as in English.

Added district assessment director Evan Bartelheim: “We have to have relationships with the students to ensure they get the right services.”

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

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