‘Rigorous’ program bridges language barrier

Students file onstage as their names are announced during the

For some students, math is already a foreign language. Imagine
having to interpret it
– twice.

I used Google Translate and a dictionary to do my homework,

said a beaming Yenisel Cruz as she stood in a hallway outside
the packed gym at Christopher High School.
For some students, math is already a foreign language. Imagine having to interpret it – twice.

“I used Google Translate and a dictionary to do my homework,” said a beaming Yenisel Cruz as she stood in a hallway outside the packed gym at Christopher High School.

Other times she had to rely on her bilingual friends, she said.

The 17-year-old Gilroy High School junior only spoke Spanish when she moved to the Garlic Capital three years ago from Oaxaca, Mexico.

On Monday evening, Cruz addressed hundreds of attendees as a guest speaker during Gilroy Unified School District’s 2011 Reclassification Ceremony – in fluent English.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to learn this language before I graduate,’ ” she recalled with dogged triumph.

Cruz is one of 397 Gilroy English Language Learner students who buckle down every year to be reclassified as Fluent English Proficient.

Lorena Tariba, GUSD administrator of English Learners Programs, said during the past two years that number has grown from an average of 250 to 400.

High digits aren’t indicative of easiness, however.

Each ESL individual must pass the California English Language Development Test, which covers listening, speaking, reading and writing.

To be considered for reclassification, a student needs to receive four or five out of five levels on the CELDT. That’s in addition to scoring a 325 or higher on the language portion of their California Standard Test, acquiring a teacher’s recommendation, parental acknowledgment of proficiency and partaking in a one-on-one verbal evaluation with a teacher.

“It’s a pretty hard job,” noted Teresa Arizmendi, district facilitator for GUSD’s English Learner Programs.

She described the road to reclassification as “rigorous.”

Arizmendi pointed out ESL students are not only absorbing content in the classroom, but are also simultaneously juggling the task of becoming “perfectly fluent” in a secondary language.

For Cruz, who had an even later start compared to the average ESL student, the road to English proficiency and her diploma is twice as intense.

The GHS junior takes summer classes, participates in an online independent study program and stays after school as late as 5 p.m. for an extra period.

Tariba commented Cruz has had to sacrifice her summers and most of her free time – on top of completing homework for her regular classes.

“I’m pretty proud of what I’ve accomplished,” said Cruz, who hopes to attend the University of California, Davis to study environmental sciences.

Cruz credits her father, who was working in the United States before the rest of his family moved up from Mexico, for being a source of encouragement and wanting his daughter to have a chance at better education.

Tariba emphasized parental support is a fundamental ingredient – and it showed in Monday’s turnout.

The center of CHS’s gym was packed with GUSD students from elementary students all the way up to high school seniors, many who turned and repeatedly waved to supportive spectators lining the bleachers. One attendant arrived clutching a bright bouquet of yellow and pink roses, and a sea of steady hands held cameras in the area as youth filed on stage to be acknowledged.

“The parents must also agree and understand what the process is,” said Tariba stressing parental engagement is crucial.

She said the system teaches parents how to accelerate English learning at home as well.

“We just don’t turn them loose after, either,” she reminded.

For three straight years after the students are reclassified, Tariba explained administrators monitor a student’s continual progress with biannual evaluations in the fall and spring. If there have been any lapses or the student is struggling, staff will provide additional help.

Another possible element in the mix for ESL students is an item called the Seal of Biliteracy – a special award given by a school, district or county office of education in recognition of students who are multilingual. The seal appears on the transcript or diploma of the graduating senior and is a statement of accomplishment for future employers and for college admissions, according to the California Federation of Teachers.

Currently 33 districts in California offer the seal – which honors not only Spanish-speaking students, but students who are proficient in other languages as well. A bill to create a statewide Seal of Biliteracy for diplomas and transcripts was recently introduced at the legislative level.

“We’re not offering it right now, but we’re exploring the possibility to start,” said Tariba. “We’re starting to look and see what it could look like. This is a very exploratory thing right now.”

Tariba noted the purpose of the seal is to promote bilingual students who tout an asset deemed highly valuable in the 21st century workplace.

As for the current ESL program GUSD has in place, Tariba said the district has made great strides in terms of teacher training, parent training and honing the lens on the needs of ESL students. She’s hoping the surge they’ve seen in the past two years stays consistent.

Witnessing youth “blossom” and become empowered is a very rewarding thing to be a part of, she said, as is seeing them stay in touch with their cultural roots and remaining connected with their families.

“We have a demand for bilingualism in the work force, and in our area and in our town,” she said. “Having students who can speak English and Spanish is a real asset for a community and for our people here in this area. It gives me a great sense of pride and hope for the future of these students.”

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