ELD: a look into the stories behind the program
multimedia expansion of In-Depth Vol. 38, Issue 1
Welcome to the first episode of the Oracle’s podcast, In-Depth Expanded. The podcast is hosted by In-Depth editor Renée Remsberg and produced by Renée Remsberg, Mateo Kaiser, and Abby Porter. Each episode will offer a detailed account of the In-Depth topic from our print edition, as the reporters discuss their findings. This episode takes a look at the stories behind the English Language Development program, examining who it serves and how it helps English learners.
When she first arrived from her home country of China in 2015, senior Jennifer Huan said she felt confused and alone. It was the English Language Development (ELD) program that she said helped her find her place and aided the transition from her life in China to MVHS.
The ELD program, offered at four levels, is designed to support students learning English as their second language. The program also provides students and their families with mental and physical health support.
Huan said that cultural differences contributes to a feeling of isolation and disconnect. Huan, like other ELD students, found that it was easiest to make friends with those in the program who shared the same native language and culture as her.
“As an ELD student, I feel we’re excluded because of the culture [difference],” Huan said. “[Other ELD students] tend to have their own groups of friends and don’t want to reach out [in class].”
Similarly to Huan, sophomore Daniel Gonzalez originally struggled socially, despite what he described as a welcoming community, as he feared potential bullying due to his underdeveloped English speaking skills. According to Gonzalez, many of his peers also felt hesitant to speak outside of their ELD class for the same reason, even to teachers of mainstream classes.
Senior Mateo Angel Morales, who moved two years ago from Colombia, echoed this sentiment.
“I want [other students] to understand that it’s not easy coming from another culture and exposing yourself to another culture,” Mateo said.
His brother, junior Samuel Angel Morales, said he remembers his initial shock upon eating an In and Out burger.
“In my country it’s really different, the food, the language,” Samuel said. “Everything [here] was new to me.”
Bridging the culture gap between ELD and mainstream students was one of Huan’s main goals last year as the first ASB ELD Liaison. She helped organize events like culture week, a spirit week designed to raise cultural awareness, to help mitigate exclusion between those in ELD and the rest of the student body. She also created an ELD guidebook so students in the program could become more accustomed to MVHS and U.S. culture.
This school year, Samuel has built upon Huan’s previous work as this year’s ASB ELD Liaison by creating posters and presentations for ELD students to inform them about on-campus activities. He said he understands how it’s easy to feel isolated from the student body and aims to create a sense of campus inclusion for his peers.
By joining ASB, Huan and Samuel said they have become more involved in the school community. Many ELD students emphasized that despite the challenges, getting involved on campus proved a major way for them to build connections with others outside the program.
Both Mateo and Gonzalez advise other ELD students to push themselves and join activities around campus, as they both did by joining the soccer team.
“We ELD students are the same as [mainstream students],” Gonzalez said, adding that the student body, “should get close to ELD students because it helps to create a better community. If they ask you how are you, how are your classes going, it makes you feel like they care about you. It makes you feel good.”
The ELD program, which serves 269 students district-wide, is the primary support system for MVHS students new to the country or learning English. The program’s goal is to help students achieve grade-level standards for English in reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
Schools are required by state law to test students for the program when they indicate on their official transcript that they are fluent in any language other than English. Students are then given a preliminary test, called the California English Language Development Test, CELDT, to determine if they need ELD services, and if so, at what level.
Of the 164 students in the MVHS ELD program, about 130 of them, nearly 78 percent speak Spanish as their first language. Another seven percent speak Mandarin and four percent speak Japanese. The remaining 11 percent speak a variety of other languages including Russian, Korean, French, and Turkish.
Level 1 serves students who come to the United States with limited to no English proficiency. Students in Level 2 can understand the basic components of English and form simple sentences. Once students can comprehend 70- 80 percent of the spoken language, they are able to progress to Level 3. Level 4 is for students who are able to understand most of the spoken language, but still need support for cultural nuances, vocabulary development, reading, and writing. Students can be reclassified as proficient in English and join mainstream classes if they meet a certain GPA, score well on the CELDT, and receive a letter of recommendation from an English teacher.
The ELD program has been at MVHS for decades. Los Altos High School had a nearly identical program, but about nine years ago the influx of EL students decreased, prompting the district to combine the programs from both schools into a single one at MVHS, which was chosen because it had more space, consolidating students, teachers, and class resources. Despite this, 30 percent, 79, of ELD students are currently at LAHS.
As a result, students who live in the LAHS area but need ELD services must commute for up to an hour, according to program director Judie Lee, to get to MVHS every morning. According to Navarro, the district helps these families with transportation by offering bus passes but added that many students are still unable to commute to MVHS. If they remain at LAHS, they have access to a limited number of support classes in English, math, and history, designed for students not yet proficient in English in addition to extra support from counselors.
Due to the low number of ELD students at LAHS, the district is not planning on reopening the program at the school.
California law required ELD programs to teach in English only up until 2017. However, the passing of California Proposition 58 overruled the mandate and allowed teachers to teach through dual immersion, which legislators had determined would improve language learning.
Despite the change, MVHS ELD classes have continued to teach in complete English immersion — meaning that the class is taught only in English, however translation is provided if necessary — which teachers said they felt was more effective. ELD teacher Lydia Zele said that once she speaks to her students in Spanish they are more hesitant to speak to her in English, and Lee added that only allowing students to speak English helps them progress faster because the class has one common language.
However in lower level ELD classes, there are several instructional assistants who aid students struggling to understand a concept by talking to them in their native language. While the assistants can aid Spanish and Mandarin speakers, who account for roughly 85 percent of ELD students, roughly 15 percent speak neither of these languages.
Although the creators of Proposition 58 found that dual immersion improves language learning Gonzalez said that he finds complete English immersion the best way to learn a new language and that often the teachers are not strict enough with enforcing an English only classroom.
Additionally, assistant superintendent of educational services Margarita Navarro explained that Proposition 58 allows the district to create primary language classes, however, MVHS is unable to due to the language diversity. This has been made up for through the use of primary language supplements in classrooms, such as worksheets in Spanish.
In addition to ELD classes, the school also offers math, science, and history through a method called Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English. In SDAIE classes, content and English are taught side by side. Enrollment in a SDAIE class requires basic proficiency in English and SDAIE teachers undergo special training.
“So far, the [SDAIE] program has been wonderful,” Lee said. “It took us a long time to fight for the classes in math and science and history. Now, we have them in place, and our students are much more successful academically.”
Lee added that before SDAIE courses were introduced, ELD students could only take ELD, math, and PE, which led to extremely low rates of graduation. With SDAIE, students can simultaneously be supported linguistically and master content.
Outside of Classroom Support
The ELD program aims to continue its recent initiatives that focus on student wellness outside the classroom, as Zele said that safety and emotional support are just as much a priority for the program as academic support.
One such initiative is coming from the Ambassadors Club, a student group on campus that works to increase inclusivity and integrate new students into the campus culture. The club’s ELD committee is working to mitigate the gap between mainstream students and inform them about ways they can get involved on campus. The committee, which is led by senior Annemarie Foy, holds events such as monthly potlucks and club presentations. Although the students can get information from their teachers, she said the Ambassadors provide a helpful student perspective.
“I thought it was a need that wasn’t being addressed by Ambassadors very much, so I decided to make sure I got involved,” Foy said.
Both Zele and Lee said that they are grateful for the support the program receives from students’ groups such as Ambassadors.
Additionally, counselor David Marroquin now teaches an academic support class to help students in the ELD program to adjust to the American education system.
“It’s much more than academic support, it’s also social and emotional support for students who are brand new to the country who need much more than English and math and science,” Gomez said. “In some cases, they may have left a very violent situation in the country and that’s why they’re here, so those students need a lot of support transitioning to the system.”
Another new initiative that was created this year is the school’s Immigrant Support Group, which was formed to serve the needs of the immigrant population in regards to medical assistance, legal help, among other basic needs including housing and food. The group is run by several teachers and Alma Rueles, the school’s bilingual liaison. Although the group is not specifically targeting the ELD program, according to Rueles, the majority of families they are assisting are those of ELD students.
The district also serves the families of the students by offering ELAC, the federally mandated English Learner Advisory Council. The group teaches immigrant parents about the American school system and provides them with a place to express their concerns.
The school also offers workshops for Spanish-speaking families through an organization called Parent Institute for Quality Education. The workshops emphasize how to approach teachers, counselors, and administration for help at MVHS. A similar program called Tea Time is provided for Mandarin speaking families, where Lee instructs parents on the American school system.
“[We are] giving them a sense of ownership, that this is their school too, and it’s a safe place to come, and it’s okay to ask questions,” Gomez said.
Overall, according to Gomez, ELD staff at MVHS are set on continuing to improve the program and support for EL students and families.
“By law, we are obligated to provide [ELD] services,” Gomez said. “I want to go beyond that. [Do] not just what’s legally required, but what’s ethically and morally the right thing to do to provide the services for this population so that they can achieve to the best of their abilities.”