How might the west county high school consolidation impact English learners?

By Dylan Peña Pérez, El Molino Student, SoCoNews, June 9, 2021

bilingual paraeducator

Bilingual paraeducator Cynthia Beutelspacher helping ELL student Eliel Ortega during math class at El Molino High School. Photo Dylan Peña Pérez

English Language Learner (ELL) students may see some changes when Analy High School and El Molino High School merge into one at the start of the coming school year.

Superintendent Toni Beal said over email that the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) is still in the process of finalizing its plan to serve English learners and their families, involving multiple plans developed with students, parents and staff.

According to Lily Smedshammer, Spanish and English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Analy High School, El Molino has a total of 17 Limited English Proficient (LEP) students and a total of 89 Reclassified Fluent English Proficient (RFEP) students, while Analy has 20 LEP students and 164 RFEP students. So, in the new consolidated high school, there would be a total of 37 LEP students and 223 RFEP students if all stay in the district.

The student population of the new consolidated high school will be about 1,600 students, according to Smedshammer. One bilingual paraeducator is needed for every student who needs it in order to help them all at the same time, meaning that with so many students in one single school, these 37 LEP students won’t always have someone by their side who is translating class material in real-time.

“I know that with the COVID funds to help address learning loss we are looking at hiring an increased number of paraeducators. Probably not one-to-one for every student who will need it, but we are looking to make some interesting changes to our EL program” said Dani Barese, El Molino’s vice principal, in a May 12 email. According to Barese, these changes can’t yet be shared because of confidentiality rules.

In a May 19 email, superintendent Toni Beal said “There are currently two positions, and we will be adding two additional bilingual paraeducator positions in the district. We will also be adding a Family Engagement Specialist (bilingual).

The full plan to support English learners and other prioritized student groups will be outlined in the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) to be presented to the public in June, she said.

The school board approved the Extended Learning Opportunity (ELO) Grant Plan on May 26, outlining additional instruction and supports that the district will provide this coming school year with state COVID-19 relief and reopening funds.

The plan includes providing two bilingual paraeducators on campus for the district’s summer school program, an additional ELL support class, ELL “coaching support” for teachers and a bilingual family engagement specialist in the new school year, Beal presented.

LEP students from farther out in west county who used to go to El Molino would face the language barrier in addition to the challenge of a longer commute.

ESL classes help students develop their English skills, but an ESL class and having a bilingual paraeducator help translate class material in real-time provide two very different types of help for the student. ESL classes solely help the student develop their English skills.

But learning a new language takes time, and if students don’t have someone who is helping them translate class material in real-time, they may fall behind in class as much as it would take them to learn English at a certain level that allows them to not need a translator anymore.

Paraeducator and student voices
Bilingual paraeducators are imperative when it comes to ELL students’ education, since they’re by ELL students’ side during any class such as history, math, English or science. Bilingual paraeducators translate class material in real-time so that the student moves along with the class smoothly. Without the help of bilingual paraeducators, ELL students have a harder time performing well academically and might even affect the time it takes for them to be able to graduate.

“Es mucho mejor ya que con la traductora te ayuda a aprender cosas que no sabías, por ejemplo, youaprender el inglés, aprender nuevas palabras, tener orientación en como poder hacer las cosas o cómo decir las cosas,” said Eliel Ortega, an LEP student attending El Molino High School.

Translated into English, he said, “It is much better (having a person helping translate in real-time) because the translator helps you learn things that you didn’t know. For example, they help you learn English, learn new words and they show you how to do things or say things.”

“Siento que se está ayudando muy bien a las personas que tienen un traductor de muchas maneras que las benefician. Es bueno tener un traductor para las personas que lo necesitan porque les ayudará en el futuro,” said Leslie Hernandez, ELL student at Analy High School.

Translated into English she said, “I feel like we are really helping students who have a translator in many beneficial ways. It’s good to have a translator for the ones who need it because it will help them in the future.”

Cynthia Beutelspacher, a bilingual paraeducator at El Molino High School, received a layoff notice this year but has since been rehired. “I’m getting my job back next year, but Analy’s bilingual paraeducator resigned,” she said.

“I feel that if that happens (lack of bilingual paraeducators in the new consolidated high school), then our ESL population would be underserved. This could cause a number of problems, for example, dropping out, failing, and attendance issues,” described Beutelpascher.

Providing a bilingual paraeducator for LEP students is already a struggle at El Molino High School. “I have to decide who to help one day and who to help the other,” described Beutelspacher when talking about LEP students who need her assistance during class.

A number of bilingual students said they would be interested in a hypothetical class for bilingual students focused on helping ELL students translate class material in real-time. Based on a recent survey conducted by students in the district, which received 91 total responses, 64 of which were student responses and 27 parents, teachers and other community members, 10 bilingual students out of an unknown number answered “Yes” when asked if they would like to be a part of the class as described above. The number of bilingual students who answered the survey is unknown.

“We are in the process of finalizing the plan to serve our English Language Learners and their families. It is a critical piece of the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), the Expanded Learning Opportunity plan, our plan to serve Long Term English Learners (CCEIS), and our work on a New School Model grant. These plans are being developed in collaboration with parents, students and school staff,” said Beal in an email before the school board’s May 26 meeting about the Expanded Learning Opportunity plan.


How might graduation rates be impacted?
Not having enough bilingual paraeducators “could cause students dropping out, failing classes and attendance issues, also they could just move schools that could better serve their needs. Graduation rates for this population would drop and the academic performance would be poor,” said Beutelspacher.

Ninety-nine percent of these ELL students are Latinx, according to Beutelspacher, and not providing them with the help they need could cause Latinx graduation rates to decline and can make these students lose motivation to keep learning and pursuing higher education.

“A decrease in our Latinx graduation rates will discourage other students to pursue higher learning because they will see that as unvalued, or not important or unnecessary,” expressed Beutelspacher. In the past three years, El Molino’s Latinx students have graduated at a rate of 100%, according to Marilu Saldaña, a bilingual student counselor at El Molino High School.

This could contribute to the effects threatening stereotypes have on minorities, particularly on the Latinx student body that they can’t perform as well as their white classmates academically. These stereotypes are already affecting the students in the community, and it would be undeserving of the district if it didn’t try its best to accommodate these students’ needs.

Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) students feel like they don’t belong in their classes because of society’s stereotypes of how these minority groups cannot outstand academically.

“In my opinion, stereotypes play a role in campus life and how BIPOC perform in school. Especially when the majority at the school is white. For me, it shows in the classroom and at times makes me feel excluded or inferior. For example, in AP classes. The majority of the class is made up of white people with one or two, maybe even a handful of BIPOC. In that setting it makes me feel like my input/opinion isn’t needed or is wrong. When in reality, different voices (especially in history classes) are needed,” said Xitlalic Vital, a senior in the district.

“I believe there is the idea that those advanced classes aren’t made for us. Sort of like those classes are for the ‘elite’ or the really smart people and we aren’t one of them, when that’s not the case. Overall, these stereotypes make me feel frustrated because they are out of my control. I can’t control what types of stereotypes pop up but the best I can do is stand my ground and educate others on why stereotypes are bad,” she expressed when asked how stereotypes affected her in a learning environment.

Valerie Mendoza, a junior, said, “It’s hard being a student in the states, especially being a student of color in AP classes. It’s difficult sitting in a room of majority-white kids and not feel intimidated that you may not be good enough to be in the class. It’s also difficult knowing two languages and having classmates or teachers think it’s weird when you can’t understand certain material,” when asked about threatening stereotypes about her racial and ethnic groups.

“I’m first generation in the states. My brothers and I are the only cousins from the states that have or are planning on graduating high school, I’m the first in my family to go to college,” Mendoza said. “It’s hard to not see many brown folks moving forward in their education, it’s discouraging. The systems let us down and it’s unfair,” when asked about how a potential drop in Latinx graduation rates in the district would and have affected her.

As the community prepares to merge these two high schools, what the district decides to do to prove bilingual paraeducators and other supports for ELL and Latinx students and families will impact how accessible its education will be for communities already facing barriers.

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