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Contra Costa County students look at ups, downs of ELD programs

Students have mixed viewpoints on how effective English Language Development (ELD) programs are in helping them to learn English. Photo courtesy The Yuri Arcurs Collection via Freepik

In schools across the country, English Language Development (ELD) programs are meant to be reliable tools for students who are in the early and intermediate stages of learning English. However, views vary from person-to-person concerning these programs, as everyone has different experiences. 

Being one of these students, I faced many challenges because I didn’t know English when I came to the United States in 4th grade. At my elementary school – Marina Vista in Pittsburg – I was offered a translator, but it was a classmate who didn’t know much Spanish, making it difficult for me to understand what was going on in class. 

As I progressed to middle school, the program was different. Although I could understand some English, I struggled to speak it. I received help from tutors and stayed after school in the ELD program, which primarily focused on students new to the U.S. with limited English proficiency. My experience was a mix of ups and downs, but I eventually graduated from the ELD program at the beginning of my 9th-grade year.

I’ve thought about sharing my experiences in the ELD program with others for some time. My interest was reignited when I spoke with my new neighbor, Isallana, and learned her experience was surprisingly different from mine. Her teachers provided homework in both Spanish and English, allowing students from other countries to learn at the same pace as their peers. This was a stark contrast to my experience, where all my homework was in English, and my mom and I had to rely on Google Translate. 

I was curious about how the ELD program has evolved over the years and wanted to explore the experiences of other students, whether similar or different from mine. Additionally, I realized that not many people are aware of the true function, purpose and significance of this and similar language learning programs.

There has been some form of English learning programs as early as the 1600s. However, it was in the 1960s, “largely as a result of the rise in the number of Cuban immigrants … [that] the first large-scale government-sanctioned bilingual program was initiated in Dade County, Florida, and soon became an unofficial model for the nation,” reports show.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, in fall 2021 more than 5.3 million English learners were enrolled in public K-12 schools countrywide, “representing nearly 11 percent of total K-12 student enrollment.” And during the 2022-23 school year, the California Department of Education reported there were about 1.113 million English learners in the state’s public schools, continuing to be the highest in the nation.

The following are experiences and opinions from a local instructor and several students who have completed the ELD program. All were asked to describe their experience in one word that captured their feelings while in the program and/or to share more. These accounts provide a snapshot of their diverse perspectives.

Thumbs down

Henry Lezama, 15 – finished the program three years ago. When asked about his experience, he bluntly described it as ass,meaning he found it terrible.

Jasmine Flores, 17 – completed ELD four years ago and described her experience as dull. 

Andrea Celeste, 15 – a graduate of 2023, expressed disappointment and felt “frustrated” with the programs quality.

Lezama went on to say he was enrolled in the program throughout his elementary years plus a year in middle school. He theorized that his Hispanic background forced his placement within the program, despite his proficiency in English. The mere process of exiting the program was tedious and time-consuming for him. This, along with the added frustration of the possibility of needing to retake the classes in subsequent years (if he failed), led to his contempt of ELD.

Flores arrived in the U.S. during 4th grade. She’s expressed mixed feelings about the program. ELD occasionally helped her with having a firmer grasp with grammar. However, her ELD teachers only spoke English, which Flores said limited her understanding on occasion, caused her not to comprehend or maintain the lessons, and made her feel that she often was teaching herself the language. 

Celeste arrived in the United States during 2nd grade and said she felt alone and confused while attending ELD classes. Struggling with tests, she’d feel down each time she didn’t pass. However, she often attained support from teachers who spoke Spanish during her 7th and 8th grade years, helping her excel.

Karina Valencia, an ELD teacher at Pittsburg High School, has been involved with the program since 2017. She shared the following:

“In the beginning stages of the process, students are asked about languages spoken at home. Affirmative responses automatically place students into the ELD program. The initiative taken by the program reflects California’s acknowledgment of the diverse linguistic backgrounds students in the state have, while recognizing the varying levels of English literacy that many young residents have. 

“For instance, a child from an English-speaking household may have had five years of exposure to English before beginning school, while a bilingual or multilingual child may have had less. In the end, the ELD program aims to ensure that all students, regardless of their linguistic heritage, can attain academic parity.”

Valencia said students must meet various criteria to progress in and from the program. This includes achieving a score of 4 in reading, writing, speaking and listening on the ELPAC (English Language Proficiency Assessments for California). This test is taken on a computer, except for the speaking portion, which is similar to the AP Spanish test. For speaking, students listen to an audio and explain it to the tester in a one-on-one setting. For listening, students answer comprehension questions based on conversations they hear. 

Additionally, students must pass standardized tests like i-Ready or CAASPP –  California student achievement testing system for English Language Arts/Literacy (ELA) – in their English classes and receive a teacher recommendation, which is required. Educators assess whether the student’s English proficiency matches that of native English speakers. 

All the above are necessary to graduate from the program. 

Thumbs up

On the other hand, some current students (who wished to provide first names only) have expressed more positive views:

Isallana, 12, a 5th grader, said: “I didn’t like the program at first, but now I think it’s really good. I get more help, and I like that we have materials in both English and Spanish. It makes learning easier for me.”

Melda, 15, a 9th grader, said: “I like the program as my ELD teacher gives us notebooks in English and Spanish, and that’s helping me.” 

Juan, 17, a 12th grader, said: “I like how the class is in English and Spanish.”

So, why do past students and current ones have such varying opinions?

Flores said that some classes were unproductive, recalling that students would be on their phones during lessons. 

Lezama said he thinks his school may have put students in the program for financial gain. However, Valencia defends her counterparts.

“Some of the times teachers want to help ELD students but don’t know how to,” she said. “This could affect the students’ experiments in the program.” 

Valencia went on to say that, “Being an ELD teacher is more than teaching English, as students come from different places in the world and their education system is different and their level of education, too. One student may know how to read numbers in their first language, but not know how to read or write in English, and another could know nothing.”

Changes are being implemented, though Mariel Duran, a TRiO Educational Talent Search counselor who was an ELD counselor during the 2023-24 first semester, tells us how Pittsburg High School has more resources available; offering therapy, language-specific guides and computer lessons to help meet the needs of all kinds of students.

Plus, there’s more money coming in for the betterment of these programs. 

“The Pittsburgh Unified School District is going to become a community school district, which means that every single school is going to get so much money and so much funding,” Valencia said. “Not for teachers, but for services and programs that can help students.” 

Educators explain that ELD involves more than just teaching English. They have to be ready for students from all over the place, each with their learning styles and backgrounds. It’s all about finding the right way to help each student learn.

Wendy Hernandez will be a 12th grader this fall at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg.

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