Photo by: Michael Wu
Each English Language Learning (ELL) student has his or her own story, and although they have ended up in the same class, their journeys are anything but ordinary. Students from across the globe seek an education where social classes, racial barriers and cultures are set aside for a common goal: to learn English. For instance, many students, including sophomore Yi Lei Yu, went through a lot of trouble to obtain an American education. Yu remembers the long line of people outside the United States embassy in China. “My parents wanted me to get an American education, because they said that American education is the best,” Yu said. In China, according to Yu, many people talk about the prospect of America, but few have the chance.
Coming to America to seek an education can have an impact on family life. Many ELL students, including Yu, have had to make sacrifices and leave family and friends back home. Senior Veronica Garcia, an ELL student from Mexico, had to leave both her parents to live with her uncle and grandparents here in the U.S.
America’s education has proved to be different for many students. “The teachers are different,” sophomore Kloranne Kambou, who came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said. “[Congan teachers] are not very, very nice. If you pay money, you will have a good education; if you don’t, sometimes the teacher will not come.” Yu also notices differences between U.S. schooling and Chinese schooling. “In China, schools don’t really care about sports,” Yu said. “They care, but not as much as the U.S.”
While many students come to the U.S. with the main goal of improving their English, others make the trip for family reasons. Kambou came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the hope of meeting her father for the first time. “For 17 years, I had lived in Congo not knowing a lot about my father, except that he was making money in the U.S.,” she said.
Kambou was ecstatic when her dad decided to bring her to the U.S. However, despite being delighted to meet her father, Kambou described her first day at Gunn as overwhelming. “I would say hi to everyone I met, but people would ignore me,” she said. Luckily, Kambou was able to make new friends, such as Garcia, in her ELL class.
Garcia also had to leave her family to pursue an education in the U.S. “Living with my aunt and uncle in the United States started out as difficult, but I was able to adapt,” she said. Every night, Garcia calls her parents and reminds them of how grateful she is to be here.
Despite not being as fluent in English as most Americans, the ELL students are not afraid to dream big. Kambou hopes to become a lawyer and then a fashion model. Garcia wants to become a doctor to make money and help bring her parents to the U.S., while Yu hopes to go back to China so he can stand out from the competition with his American education.
For students like Kambou, Garcia and Yu, enrollment into the ELL program started at the district office. If a parent states in the paperwork that a student is from another country or a language other than English is spoken at home, then the student is required to take the California English Development Test (CELDT) to determine if he or she should be placed in the ELL program or the mainstream English program.
If the student is placed in the ELL program, they will then be prepared by ELL teacher Rick Jacobs for a successful transition into the mainstream English program, which requires strong reading and grammar skills. To do this, every student reads a variety of books in their reading level, answers comprehension questions and participates in class discussions.
Even though the students are focused on improving their English, the ELL classes draw out the diversity of the cultures the students bring. “Kids talk about their own cultures and how they are related to the topic in the reading, but they don’t necessarily focus on their native languages,” Jacobs said.
To decide when a student is ready to make the change from ELL to mainstream, Jacobs makes sure he or she satisfies a list of criteria. When students pass the class, they gain a stamp of language proficiency on their transcripts. Their writing skills also need to have improved sufficiently from when they first entered the program.
Students write in a composition book to track their progress, as well as writing four book reports throughout the year. They also need to receive certain scores on two different standardized tests. According to Jacobs, students need a score at least a 4 or 5 on the CELDT, which evaluates their listening, speaking, reading and writing skills and at least 325 on the Standardized Testing and Reporting exam in order to graduate from the ELL program.
According to Jacobs, the ELL program has been highly successful in giving kids the tools the need to graduate. “Every year, we have a high rate of graduating kids,” Jacobs said. “However, the rate of students being re-designated as ‘fluent English proficient’ is lower because sometimes students don’t meet all the criteria to make the transition.”
According to Jacobs, students who fit this description are those who enrolled in the ELL program later than others. “It’s not possible to come here as an eleventh grader, not knowing English, and then [expect] to get all the high school requirements done and graduate,” he said.
Despite the high success rate, every year there are parents who believe that their student doesn’t belong in the program. “[Parents] often think the student will learn English more quickly if they are just dropped into the mainstream program,” Jacobs said. “However, learning language isn’t magic, so you need a lot of time to learn a new language.”
Because Gunn is the only high school in PAUSD that offers ELL, students from Palo Alto High School (Paly) can enroll at Gunn. However, some students stay at Paly because of distance.
Jacobs believes that students who need the ELL program struggle without it. Parents who live in the Paly boundaries are not required to enroll their children in the ELL program at Gunn if they sign a waiver. “Sometimes the parents put their residence ahead of the student’s language learning,” Jacobs said. “What you end up with is a large group of students at Paly who need an English learner program.”
Current ELL students agree that the program has helped improve their English skills. Yuta Okada believes that he has learned a lot more English at Gunn compared to his previous Japanese school. “When I was learning English in Japan, we didn’t focus on speaking or listening because it was hard to learn, so we only focused on writing and reading,” Okada said. “Mr. Jacobs has taught us a lot and he has helped me with writing essays. He reads our work and tells us how to improve.”
Freshman David Stelzer from Germany agrees with Okada. “The ELL program has helped me a lot with my vocabulary and I’m pretty fluent in English now,” Stelzer said. “When I first came to the United States, it took me a long time to think about the words I wanted to say. However, I work hard in class to improve my English.”