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| Read "California's English language learners getting stuck in schools' remedial programs"

Seven-year-old Julian Ruiz is an English speaker who doesn't know a word of Spanish, or any other foreign language.

Yet when the Torrance boy entered kindergarten at Arnold Elementary School three years ago, he was classified as an English learner - that is, a student not fluent in English.

This shunted him into a category of schooling that his mother, Millie Ruiz, says he shouldn't be in, and triggered a dispute between her and the school's administration that persists today.

Ruiz says her son - who was held back a year in kindergarten - is trapped in the school district's English Language Development program. This, she said, has given him a label he doesn't deserve, and put him on a path that she fears could be detrimental in the long run.

"If somebody tries to talk to him in Spanish, he's like, `Stop talking silly to me,"' she said. "There comes a point where we need to introduce some common sense into the whole scheme of things."

Across California, about 23 percent of all K-12 students are English learners. Nearly 40 percent of the state's kindergartners are so designated. A contingent of lawmakers and academics believes the number is too high - that the system is designed to err on the side of assigning the label.

A 2011 study by the University of California at Berkeley concluded that California school districts are misidentifying large numbers of entering kindergarten students as English learners, in part because the test that determines whether they deserve the label is too difficult for the vast majority of pre-kindergartners.

"The wide net currently being cast by California's (English learner) classification system in some ways renders the classification itself meaningless," said the authors, Lisa Garcia Bedolla and Rosaisela Rodriguez.

The result: Scarce resources earmarked for the purpose of helping nonfluent students are being spent inefficiently.

Some English-learner advocates see it differently.

Dan Fichtner, president of the California Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages education foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides support to teachers of English learners, said that when it comes to language acquisition, it's better to be safe than sorry.

"We believe that it is better to err on the side of being conservative ... than to make a mistake and lose those first formative years," Fichtner said.

As for Julian - a second-grader because he was held back a year in kindergarten - Torrance administrators say that his school simply followed state and federal procedures when placing him in the English learner program. Now, Julian - like all students in the program - must keep the designation until at least third grade, at which point he can start trying to test out of it.

"We're following the law, regardless of whether anybody agrees or disagrees with the pieces," said Kati Krumpe, director of state and federal programs for the Torrance Unified School District.

In any event, Ruiz's story illustrates the way in which English learners receive the designation in the first place.

Julian Ruiz of Torrance has been classified as an English learner even though he doesn t speak Spanish, or any other language besides English. His mother,
Julian Ruiz of Torrance has been classified as an English learner even though he doesn t speak Spanish, or any other language besides English. His mother, Millie Ruiz, has unsuccessfully been trying to get him redesignated as fluent in English. (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)

How designation works

In California, it all begins with a language survey, filled out by every parent sending a child to kindergarten at a public school. The survey includes four questions:

• What language did the student use when first learning to speak?

• What language does he or she use most frequently at home?

• What language does the parent speak when talking with the student?

• What language is most often spoken by adults in the home?

Ruiz answered the first three questions with "English." But it was her fourth answer - "English/Spanish" - that triggered the need to take a language test before his first day of kindergarten.

Known as the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), the exam usually takes an hour and a half to administer - although for Julian it took three hours, his mother insists. The test-takers must be separated from their parents.

"They said it's required by law," Ruiz said. "I said, `Come on. He's 4 years old. He's not going to pass any kind of exam."'

Like about 90 percent of all kindergartners statewide who take the test, Julian failed to score high enough to avoid the English learner label.

Millie Ruiz does speak Spanish. But she says she uses it only occasionally, when conversing with her mother - an immigrant from Mexico - who lives in the house.

Ruiz has a cynical suspicion: Torrance leans toward labeling students English learners because of money.

"They get paid extra per child (designated an English learner), but he gets no extra services for it," she said.

It is true that Torrance Unified - like all school districts in California - receives about $330 a year in extra state funds per English learner, which amounts to about $1 million annually. But Krumpe calls Ruiz's claim "laughable."

"What you can do with that dollar amount compared with what we do for those children - it doesn't even begin to cover the cost," she said.

Krumpe says the idea that English learners need to be fluent in another language is a common misconception - and a throwback to an era in which the program for these students was called English as a Second Language.

"ESL has been gone since I've been a young girl," she said.

Now, the preferred acronym is ELD, for English Language Development. The aim is to catch students whose English development may have been stunted at a young age due to lack of exposure, Krumpe said.

"Exposure to a language other than English could delay their English language development," she said.

In Torrance Unified, about 14 percent of its 24,000 students are classified as English learners, according to the California Department of Education. About a third of Torrance's English learners (Julian included) are considered Spanish speakers. Roughly another third speak either Japanese or Korean.

Professor's kid `CELDTED'

It turns out that Garcia Bedolla, one of the authors of the UC Berkeley study, had an experience that was strikingly similar to Ruiz's story.

"I made the mistake of putting `English and Spanish' on a couple answers" to the language survey, said Garcia Bedolla, a professor of language and literacy.

This triggered the necessity for the CELDT test.

"My daughter was asked to read and write the word `apple,"' she said, noting that such a question is above the skill level of the average pre-kindergartner. Her daughter was found to be not fluent.

"So now, my tremendously overprivileged daughter gets resources over other kids who actually need them," she said.

Garcia Bedolla was later mingling with a few K-12 educators at a party. She told them of her daughter's situation and was surprised by their reaction.

"The schoolteachers at the party said, `Oh my gosh, she got CELDTED!"' she said, referring to the acronym for the test, CELDT. "All of them nodded their heads. They said, `Didn't you know: Don't put any other language on the survey (other than English)."'

As for Ruiz, in the summer of 2011 - after two years in the program - she decided she didn't want to participate any longer. She refused to take time off work to bring her son to the district office to take his mandatory annual CELDT exam.

The school responded by sending her a letter that Ruiz took as a threat. It stated, in all caps: "Please note that your child will not be put on a class list in September if he/she does not complete this testing process prior to school starting in the fall."

Ruiz called the school's bluff and did not have him tested that summer. That fall, the school pulled Julian out of class to take the assessment.

The results came back a few months later: "No change for this school year."

rob.kuznia@dailybreeze.com

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