Special Report: A better way to help border students who don't know English?

Special Report: Challenges facing border school districts

EL PASO, Texas - Some educators believe border school districts are at an inherent disadvantage because of the high number of students who don't know English well.

The federal government conducts Adequate Yearly Progress reports on schools every year. The federal benchmarks are meant to measure student progress. If a school has at least 50 students with limited English proficiency, or LEP - those students' test scores count toward the school's pass or fail rating.

Audits have revealed the El Paso, Canutillo and San Elizario districts moved students around or 'disappeared' them, presumably, so the number of LEP students in a class stayed below 50.

When asked if she believes the standardized testing system, coupled with a high LEP population, make border districts more vulnerable to cheating, El Paso Teachers Association President Norma De La Rosa, said yes.

"Our districts need to look at modifying and redefining the programs that we have for our English language learners," De La Rosa said.

She said border districts face unique challenges because of the high number of English language learners.

"They're not familiar with culture, with our history - they're not familiar with our geography and how systems work and so it's a big disadvantage... when you look at the reason why many of our campuses did not make AYP through the federal accountability it's because our subgroups did not meet accountability standards," De La Rosa said.

Other border school districts have adopted varying approaches to help LEP students excel. In Calexico, California, 98 percent of entering kindergartners are LEP students.

"The majority of our population - the only time for them to learn English is in our schools, so we need to maximize that and make the best of it," said Sylvia Yanez, Calexico Unified School District's English language learning coordinator.

 Calexico's unique approach has been noticed by education journals. Students may go to a daily 50-minute class where they learn English through different subjects. They learn science or math or history and English at the same time.

On top of that, Calexico does not fully rely on standardized tests to assess student learning. The district requires students show their improvement with exhibitions, portfolios, and demonstrations that require them to articulate and explain what they've learned.

"It's not about a test. It's a time for them to learn English so that they can be successful," said Yanez.

The EPISD does have support for LEP students. EPISD offers dual language programs at eight elementary campuses and transitional bilingual classes at all the campuses.

Dual Language integrates English-speaking students with students who are English Language Learners. It's meant to increase bilingualism, biliteracy and cross-cultural awareness, an EPISD spokeswoman wrote in an email.

San Elizario offers an English immersion program and has special training for teachers who teach English. Canutillo also offers transitional bilingual classes.

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