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Anyone who’s ever tried to learn a foreign language can attest to the fact that it’s a difficult undertaking, but imagine for a moment the Herculean task that befalls American schoolchildren who don’t speak English.

As their teachers explain the concept behind dividing numbers or the conflicting ideologies that sparked the Civil War, English learners might understand some of the key words—but only after translating them internally, a process that takes time and slows the cogs of understanding. By the time they’ve decoded what the teacher just said, they’re hit with another sentence to translate, leaving them without a moment’s pause to reflect on the actual importance of the information. Instead of sinking in, facts tend to skim off the surface and vanish into the ether.

It’s a common scenario in classrooms across San Luis Obispo Coastal Unified School District, where one out of seven students is categorized as an English Learner (EL). It takes ample resources and a lot of time to overcome the language barrier and attempt to meet these students’ needs, but budget cuts enacted in May have reduced program expenditures across the district, including  a 13.8 percent, $450,000 trim from the EL program’s budget.

Defending the decision, Superintendent Eric Prater said the district will save the money by restructuring the program’s entire education delivery model, not by reducing services. Prater said the changes were long overdue, and the state’s poor fiscal health merely forced his hand.

“It’s a misunderstanding to say we’re supporting EL less,” Prater said. “What we’re doing is shifting focus on where they receive their learning.”

In the past, EL students would frequently leave their regular classroom to meet with specialists, faculty certified to teach foreign-born children the basics of English. Many of the specialists are bilingual, but their ability to speak Spanish isn’t a requirement because EL students come from all over the world, not just south of the border.

The specialists administer yearly California English Language Development Tests (CELDT) to every student to assess the individual level of fluency. Students in levels 1 and 2 spend most, if not all, of their school time with the specialists. After a year, they’re streamlined into the regular classroom. Level 3 students are conversationally fluent, and at levels 4 and 5, they can read and write but still need help to keep up academically. According to Prater, taking EL students out of the class for basic English support at later CELDT levels actually hurts their academic prospects, because they have to miss more advanced lectures.

“Part of the problem is that we have had the resources for specialists,” Prater told New Times. “But I don’t believe that EL specialists are the route to the success these students deserve.”

Starting this fall, the specialists will work more closely with teachers, instead of students, to devise lesson plans that should benefit learners at every level of fluency. Prater described how it would work with a hypothetical third-grade lesson in division: The teacher would use an example that students could relate to their own lives, like pizzas. Students would split into groups to discuss how to divide the pies and feed a certain number of people. Advanced students would receive a more complicated problem to work out, while struggling students would approach the same concept at a smaller, more manageable level, all in the same classroom.

“The worst thing we can do is segregate kids,” Prater said.

The new system will require fewer specialists, and those who remain on staff will play a supporting role to primary teachers. Seven “teacher on special assignment” positions were eliminated this summer, according to Prater. At Hawthorne Elementary School, one specialist retired and wasn’t replaced. Jill Nunno, the school’s sole remaining specialist, will have to make the rounds each day, hopefully scheduling her visits so students can best take advantage of her services without disrupting the general lesson plan.

“That’s the part that’s foggy for me,” Nunno told New Times. “But teachers are a collaborative bunch. I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

Nunno said she thinks it would be best if students still had a separate EL classroom to use after school, like successful programs in Sacramento and San Francisco. It would offer a place where they could feel safe and connected to their peers.

“Kids aren’t able to learn if they’re not comfortable,” Nunno said.

While school officials are mostly supportive of the changes, parents are harder to convince.

“Parents are a little afraid,” Nunno said. “We’ve seen a lot of success with the program as it’s been.”

They see money going away, and they don’t like it. Changing their minds with nuanced explanations of education policy isn’t easy, considering few of them speak English. Many came to the May 22 school board meeting to express concern.

“The achievement gap is really bad between Latinos and the white people,” Francisco Calavera said. “It feels like you’re not taking the responsibility to help them, like it’s not the same equality for everybody.”

One parent explained to New Times how important the EL program is to his family. Three of Hugo Martinez’s kids already attend San Luis Coastal schools, and an infant will be attending soon. The family speaks only Spanish at home, but Martinez knows that English is the key to success and opportunity in America. Since they can’t communicate in customer service or management roles, he and his wife are stuck doing physical labor. He wants more for his children. 

“They need two languages,” Martinez said. “It’s important because there’s more opportunities.”

He opposed the budget reduction, but between his broken English and the reporter’s broken Spanish, New Times found that Martinez actually supported the changes. His kids didn’t like leaving their regular classroom for EL support.

“They feel sad,” Martinez said. “They have the perception they’re missing their compañeros.”

Prater said 2012 will be a transition year. If the changes go smoothly, the district could push it further in 2013, possibly cutting more positions and saving more money.

Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at npowell@newtimesslo.com.

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