Bridging the gap for English Learners

In her World History class, freshman Kimberly Lopez sat alone. Her tablemates were standing across the room, analyzing articles their teacher had taped to the classroom walls. None of them had asked her to join them, and having moved to San Francisco from Mexico only four years earlier, Lopez wasn’t yet confident enough speaking English to approach them or contribute to the discussion. Her peers felt distant. To Lopez, her lack of English proficiency had formed a wall between her and other students.

Kimberly Lopez often feels isolated from peers because of the language barrier. Photo by Kylie Chau

This uncertainty about interacting with others due to language barriers is a shared feeling among Lowell’s English Learner (EL) population, students who struggle to communicate fluently in the English language. 

When comprehending English becomes an obstacle in their social and academic lives, EL students risk falling behind in school and failing to connect well with their peers. To support these students, California mandates public schools to have an English Language Development (ELD) program that provides them with specialized aid. However, to English Learners at Lowell, this program often isn’t enough to optimize their learning experience and wellbeing. They believe that additional and reformed assistance from students, teachers, parents, and administrators alike are necessary to create a more inclusive environment.

Lowell first implemented its ELD program in 2017, following the enactment of Proposition 58 in 2016, which mandated that all California public schools provide students with access to ELD programs. Students of various backgrounds who have difficulty speaking English — whether they are recent immigrants or come from non-English-speaking households — are brought together for this program. SFUSD has structured the program for EL students to have both designated (D-ELD) and integrated (I-ELD) classes. In designated classes, ELs are provided with instruction modified to develop their English. These specialized classes are currently limited to Heath, Ethnic Studies, and Communications and Writing. Integrated classes refer to the rest of Lowell classes that are not formed solely for ELs, where they are able to intermingle with the rest of the student body.

I get embarrassed to ask others questions in case I say something wrong in English. It makes me so scared because there are sometimes bad people who make fun of me for that.

— Kimberly Lopez

Navigating the larger Lowell community is a daunting task for English Learners. According to Lopez, she has yet to make strong connections with her peers in her integrated classes. While she hopes the cause may be that it’s still her first year at Lowell, she’s noticed that her lack of fluency speaking English has caused her to shy away from socializing with other students. In some cases, she feels that she is outright being mocked for her lack of fluency. “I get embarrassed to ask others questions in case I say something wrong in English,” Lopez said. “It makes me so scared because there are sometimes bad people who make fun of me for that.” According to Amy Crosson, Associate Professor of Education at Pennsylvania State University, this fear has consequences that go beyond the inability to befriend other students. “If a student doesn’t have an opportunity to participate in a discussion, they don’t have that opportunity to articulate their understanding and get feedback and sharpen their thinking,” she said. “The longer-term would be kind of a demotivating effect.” According to Crosson, because of these events, EL students are more likely to start believing that they’re incapable of pursuing higher education.

In the classroom, having trouble understanding lessons also causes EL students to fall behind on course material. In the 2021-2022 School Plan for Student Achievement (SPSA), the graph for students’ grades based on English proficiency showed that 17 percent of ELs at Lowell obtained D’s or F’s, compared to 9 percent of the rest of the student population. “When I don’t understand the work and I’m too shy, I feel like I’m not as smart as others,” Joseph Pacheco said, a freshman in the ELD program. He hopes that teachers will take more time to clarify their lessons as much as possible for EL students to understand.

Lowell’s ELD program aims to support English Learners through both these academic and social difficulties. Lopez and Pacheco both agreed that the program has led to improvements in English fluency. According to Lopez, having a small group of EL peers in their designated group who understand each other’s backgrounds and struggles provides emotional solace. Learning alongside these students in her designated ELD classes also gives her confidence. “It’s a very nice community,” she said. “I feel very comfortable speaking English there.” It is because of this level of comradery that ELs are less likely to shy away from the tasks they’re given and speak up. However, they still have yet to reach that same level of relief in their integrated classes.

Lopez struggles to form connections with peers. Photo by Kylie Chau

While the program provides a safe space for many students, Pacheco believes that the instructional aspect of it could be improved. He wishes that ELD would provide students with more speaking practice, rather than focusing on reading and writing in his Communications and Writing class. According to Pacheco, shifting the program’s focus to verbal communication would help him and other EL students gradually overcome their reluctance to ask teachers for help and interact with peers.

The number of students enrolled in the ELD program saw a slight increase after Lowell switched to a lottery admissions system for the 2021-2022 school year. According to the School Accountability Highlights report of 2021-2022, 3.5 percent of Lowell students were reported as ELs out of 2,662 enrolled students, a 1.6 percent rise from the constant 1.9 percent reported in both 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. This increase didn’t go unnoticed by ELD coordinator and English teacher Jacqueline Moses, who oversees the program and advises teachers on how to best support EL students. Moses was assigned to teach two smaller designated Communications and Writing classes as opposed to one large one. The number of students in the ELD grew again for  the 2022-2023 school year. 

With this increase in ELs, so came an increase in issues with accurately classifying their English proficiency. The ELD program is heavily dependent on data obtained from students’ assessment tests, specifically the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC), which is administered between February 1 and May 31. Since the students were preparing and taking the ELPAC during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them had to take the test online. The lack of a proper testing environment decreased the accuracy of the data collected. “None of that situation was an ideal testing environment,” Assistant Principal Jan Bautista said. 

The misleading data on the students’ proficiency made it more difficult to give them the proper amount of support. This was especially true in terms of classroom placement. “Some of the students don’t necessarily need to be in Communication and Writing as their levels were higher,” Moses said. “It kind of shut the door for those who could have been in that class.” Moses has had to reach out to counselors and teachers who report having students falling behind due to their lack of English proficiency, while, at the other extreme, students that were held back despite being proficient enough have to stay in the ELD program until they retake the ELPAC or opt to drop out of the program themselves.

Illustration by Katey Lau

For some EL students, having teachers in their integrated classes who don’t understand their individualized needs has posed a problem. Lopez recalled a time when a Lowell teacher wouldn’t allow her to communicate with the class through Google Translate, a translating app that allows her to clearly express her doubts and stress. According to Crosson, while using Google Translate might feel distracting during class, this technology can be necessary for an EL student who may not be able to articulate their thoughts effectively, due to the language barrier. “I think that there are many moments when it can be really elucidating and helpful and support learning to use those kinds of technologies,” Crosson said. 

According to Moses and Crosson, in order to better understand the needs of EL students and best support them, it is essential that educators receive proper training. Moses regularly attends seminars that teach her how to create an inclusive learning environment, peruses specific teaching sites, and reorients herself to be more empathetic toward students’ individual circumstances. While these types of training may be effective, Crosson offers a different perspective. “Maybe even better than taking classes would be to be connected to a teacher who is knowledgeable about working with multilingual learners, language acquisition, and some of the instructional practices that support kids to thrive academically,” Crosson said. As coordinator of Lowell’s ELD program, Moses expressed her willingness to share what she has learned with fellow teachers to better help EL students. 

In addition to teachers, parents also have unique opportunities to support English Learners. Bautista and Moses regularly recruit parents of Lowell students to join the English Learner Advisory Committee (ELAC), which leads the formation and design of the ELD program. “Parents have the right to be able to advocate for how we spend money to support EL students,” Bautista said. Every year, ELAC holds a meeting to discuss data about EL students, their own perspectives as their parents, and each student’s reclassification progress. Using this information, ELAC writes up suggestions for the principal to use when budgeting and planning courses for the program. According to Bautista, this could open opportunities for teachers to have smaller designated classes and receive more training.

I have felt a little bit of rejection, but I don’t know if it’s me, or that they don’t understand me, or don’t listen to me.

— Kimberly Lopez

Another pressing concern ELAC aims to address is the limited amount of counseling resources available to Lowell students. To Bautista, a student’s first instinct when they’re upset or concerned at school is to turn to counseling resources. “The blanket thing is to go to your counselor, or Wellness, or the school nurse,” she said. However, according to Bautista, the lack of a school nurse and Wellness Center coordinator limits the accessibility and availability of support for EL students navigating high school. ELAC hopes to continue their advocacy to hire more support staff for EL students. 

The ELD program faces multiple challenges and limitations to how much it can serve students. However, Moses and Bautista believe change is possible if teachers, parents, and students remain involved in the process. Until then, ELD students may continue to have similar emotions as those expressed by Lopez. “I have felt a little bit of rejection, but I don’t know if it’s me, or that they don’t understand me, or don’t listen to me,” she said.