What San Rafael City Schools District Does and Doesn’t Do for ELD Students
June 4, 2022
Seven-year-old Alan hacked his way to America. He also hacked his tablet in order to get Wifi, or so he says. But, despite his iPad kid tendencies, behind him I saw the shadow of a child I was familiar with thrust into a new social environment and a new country.
Alan has a voice that can yell across stadiums and leap over your walls to reach your neighbors. He’s a child who likes to be loved and the kind to grip onto you when he doesn’t want you to leave, so I was surprised to hear how this wasn’t the case at school.
“At school I think he feels excluded from his other classmates,” says Pedro Yupit, Alan’s dad. “Because of the language barrier, he struggles to engage with other students during breaks and classroom activities and I think that frustrates him the most.”
Alan is a second grade student at San Pedro Elementary School, a few miles away from San Rafael High school and just across the way from Davidson Middle School and nine other schools in the San Rafael City Schools district. SRCS sends kids to a school depending on the area they live in, which means each school’s population is different, ultimately shaping their needs for their students.
This certain characteristic of the San Rafael school system affects the different ways in which English Learning Development students like Alan are supported, or not sufficiently supported.
Bahia Vista Elementary School principal Emilia El Ammari says the school receives around one English learning student a month. “We currently have one bilingual counselor. She has a huge workload and can’t begin to meet the needs of all of our kids,” she states.
Having a large school of almost entirely EL students, Bahia Vista pays additional bilingual instructional assistants to support kids in their reading and writing. It allows their school to give students more focused help. However, during the pandemic things got a lot harder for teachers.
“If kids can’t read, they can’t be successful in any other subject and our reading data is not good, especially coming back from remote learning,” Ms. El Ammari says.
EL students, especially those who have come from a different country, have levels of trauma both from the journey of finding a supportive social network and dealing with other issues that include but are not limited to harassment from peers, feeling of not fitting in with others, and discrimination. These things can affect the students’ academic performance and overall mental and physical well-being.
“Alan was placed in San Pedro around the middle of the school year,” says Pedro. “During that time, he would get into fights with classmates who were making fun of him for not being able to speak English. Also, we noticed that he would get constant stomach aches during and after school because he was anxious.”
“Finding resources for students off campus has also been challenging lately as a lot of mental health providers are full,” says Ms. El Ammari. “We are looking at ways to pay for additional mental health support out of our site budget next year and we are also looking for a new SEL curriculum so that teachers are better equipped to meet students’ social and emotional needs.”
At San Rafael High School bilingual counselors Ana Anguiano Urtiz and Claire Mazariegos are currently supporting two hundred and eighty ELD students. Ms. Mazariegos splits her time between Terra Linda High School and San Rafael High School. The jobs held by Ms. Urtiz and Ms. Mazariegos are both recently advocated for positions, as San Rafael High School was in need of counselors to focus on their ELD students. They receive an average of 5-6 students a month, although COVID protocols and documentation have recently delayed these numbers.
“It can be heavy at times,” says the counseling duo in a collaborative email. “Every student on our caseload is high-risk. They each come in varying educational backgrounds, needs for emotional support, and trauma. On top of that, they are also experiencing cultural shock upon arrival.”
With a total of two hundred and eighty students to support it’s quite clear that meeting their students’ needs can be quite difficult. Unlike Bahia Vista and certain elementary schools, San Rafael High School must support a greater number of students. This can take a toll on the amount of students getting their needs met and the counselors who are handling big caseloads.
For Abigail Perez, a SRHS alumni and current student at College of Marin, this meant lacking the resources to know about college until her junior year. Much later than most students are introduced to the idea of what college entails.
“At first it seemed quite difficult to attend college, and I even thought of quitting school, but my counselor, 10k degrees, and CCC helped me find my way here, “says Abigail.
Although SRHS counselors cannot be with every student, the counseling duo makes sure to introduce their students to outside programs such as Huckleberry Youth Programs, Ten Thousand Degrees, Canal Alliance, and many more.
“Students need more academic support,” says Ms. Mazariegos. “Each newcomer student comes from a wide range of academic backgrounds and levels. Our ELD and SDAIE teachers do such an amazing and wonderful job at meeting each student where they are at, however, the needs are so high that each student truly needs one on one support.”
Abigail believes this is the biggest issue at San Rafael High School. Typically, ELD classes receive new students very often. These classes have students with different levels of English and learning abilities which can be a disadvantage for both students who are new, attempting to catch up, and students who are at higher levels having to go through review periods.
“I didn’t like that some students were out in higher levels when they weren’t prepared,” Abigail says. “Most students would fall behind or not attend class because they felt they would never learn. I feel like there’s a lack of regulation to see at what level each student should be placed.”
Mr. Arndt, an ELD teacher at SRHS, believes that the biggest issue with SDAIE classes is the assumption that all students’ native language is Spanish. In fact, most ELD classes have students who speak various indigenous languages. Since most classes are taught in Spanish, some students have to learn Spanish in addition to English in order to keep up.
“We have a lot of students who come from a different place with a different background, with a different language and a different culture at different times,” says Mr. Arndt. “Can you imagine a class that’s more rigorous than entering a subject that you have absolutely no background in and in a language that you’re still learning as your second or third language when your home language, in many cases, is an indigenous language?” Arndt asks.
At San Rafael High School, our student body and teachers clearly regard ELD students as “low” in terms of their academic ability. Most ELD students are learning one or two languages in order to keep up with their classes while also learning new material. But, bilingualism in SRHS is clearly not regarded as a high achievement. This can be due to the disconnect between not understanding what it’s like to have the expectation of being proficient in a language in a short period of time.
“A change I would like to see is that more teachers learn Spanish,” says Mr. Arndt. “We expect our students to become English proficient so I would love to see a shift in our teachers (not as a mandate) of learning Spanish. Basically, becoming of cultural value in our school. That would increase both the ability to communicate and just increase the familiarity of the experience of learning another language and the cultural competency of that teacher.”
According to an article written by New America about Federal Policy for English Learner Education in 2021, “There is growing acknowledgement that comparing EL and non-EL achievement may not be the most appropriate comparison, as it views ELs through a deficit lens defining their capabilities by a lack of proficiency.”
This article points out that teachers must understand the cultural, linguistic and cognitive demands of schooling for ELD students and must work through the proper training “to organize their instruction in a way that meets the needs of both English learners and English speakers at the same time.” Basically, more trauma-sensitive schooling.
“Our Bridge program has really helped our students,” says Deborah Boitano, an ELD teacher at San Rafael High School.
The Bridge program is made to support older students (typically 11th and 12th graders) in achieving their high school credits by giving them access to the school’s college and career center as well as an academic counselor, who is Ms. Mazariegos as well. In particular, the bridge program supports students who a new law called AB2121 applies to. This law allows students to complete 130 credits in high school instead of the 220 credits. This law and program are a big step in recognizing that often, more commonly in high school, the four year program does not apply to ELD new arriving students who span from different ages and different academic backgrounds.
Recently, as a new ELD 1A class has been added to accommodate a larger number of students, Ms. Boitano and many other ELD teachers have been working above their contract to meet the demand. Ms. Boitano feels that the biggest challenge in supporting her students is the access to mental health support and the fact that all her students are in different stages of development due to their varying ages.
Overall, there’s a certain limit in which students can be supported by teachers and our mental health team at San Rafael High School. This is due to the general high demand in therapists, especially bilingual therapists. Judy Shwerin, a bilingual counselor at SRHS, says that it takes around a day or two weeks for a student to meet a counselor depending on the urgency.
Of course, this lack of therapists at SRHS does not only affect ELD students but the whole student body. However, the lack of bilingual therapists makes it difficult for students to connect with their therapist and receive the emotional support they need. Thus, this job has been passed down to ELD teachers and the ELD academic counselors.
“I have to think about whether the curriculum is off, or if there is a social-emotional piece that’s off,” she states. “In a perfect world we’d have just for our group of students on-site mental health counselors that could come in or I can send my students to during class.”
“As school counselors, we also provide social emotional support for our students,” says the ELD counseling duo, in a collaborative email. “Part of this position entails advocating for more resources based on the needs we are observing.”
It’s great to see the outcome of these connections. For example, the team has partnered with Huckleberry Wellness, a non-profit dedicated to mental and physical wellness as well as education on health, to provide students with a bilingual therapist three times a week. Huckleberry Wellness provides students with an additional support called “Charlas” which is translated to “talks” for students to educate themselves on things such as their bodies, consent, and mental wellness.
Recently, Ms. Mazariegos and Ms. Urtiz have partnered with the Link Crew class to create student driven tours. This allows new students to get a proper introduction to the school campus and its buzzing events by SRHS students themselves.
“Research shows that students who feel a sense of community within their school perform better and therefore have better post-high school outcomes,” states Ms. Urtiz.
The biggest struggle for ELD students is integrating themselves into the school culture and the new environment. A lot of a student’s experience at a school is greatly influenced by the school events and student driven spirit weeks.
“I didn’t feel included at all. I would see students doing a lot of activities during lunch or after school,” says Perez.
“Most of the time the effort of our student body sounds like playing Bad Bunny and looks like putting up traditional tapestries around the school,” says a 11th grade student who wishes to remain anonymous. ”For most of the things in our school, we are expected to integrate and familiarize ourselves with the world of SRHS and its students. But, I have not seen an effort from teachers and students to do the same for us.”
There’s an evident disconnect in the San Rafael High School student body. This can be partially due to the fact that ELD students take SDAIE classes and the mainstream student body takes general classes. A lot of student connections have been built on the electives at SRHS and the after school programs such as sports and clubs. Unlike the requirements that all students have to meet, electives are chosen and allow all students to choose something they enjoy and would like to try.
However, during recent years SRHS has experienced the disappearance of some of its elective classes. This has limited interactions between all our student body. Of course, the pandemic has greatly affected the elective classes, clubs and sports. Because of this, it has greatly limited ElD students’ ability to interact with other SRHS students outside of class and during lunch.
At a middle school level, this has greatly impacted Kimberly Escobar. She recalls as an ELD student in Davidson Middle School being only able to take ELD targeted courses without the option of taking elective classes like most other students.
“Things like that made me feel useless and like an outsider,” Kimberly says. “It would have changed everything about my middle school experience if I had electives and extracurriculars to choose from. It would have made the ELD student body feel appreciated and connected to other students.”
Upcoming, the SRHS counselors are excited to have three counselors dedicated to each site: The Bridge Program, San Rafael High School, and Terra Linda High School. A more permanent position in each of these sites will help counselors dedicate more time to their group of students and alleviate some of the bigger workloads.
School budgets have a huge influence on ELD programs, with stakeholders of SRCS being people of the San Rafael community who help fund the school.
“Finding ways to build relationships with all school stakeholders is challenging,” says Ms. El Ammari.
When choices are made with funding and where it goes, schools need administrators and staff helping be the voice for ELD students.
Recently, San Rafael City Schools prepared to launch their new dual enrollment program, particularly centered around Venetia Valley, with an emphasis on providing an,“equitable, academically rigorous, enriching experience that values bilingualism.” This program is designed to aid both English and Spanish speaking students by allowing them to reach their full potential in both of those languages by 5th grade.
This effort in providing a value in language and culture will make ELD students less isolated in their classroom and promote bilingualism all around. This has the potential to increase interactions between students and decrease feelings of isolation and exclusion. The value of culture and bilingualism for students isn’t just beneficial for EL students but for all students.This new program for the 2022-2023 school year can be equally beneficial if it’s expanded from an elementary school level to a high school level, as it can continue to give students the ability to develop their language skills without feeling shut out of their school experience.
Abigail Perez wishes to be a source of motivation for ELD students who are struggling through the system. “Thinking about my experience gives me more strength to keep moving forward and maybe someday be an example that an immigrant is also capable of achieving any dreams they have,” she says.
When he was waiting to be picked up from my home, Alan fought me for the Wifi password. He finally admitted he wasn’t a hacker (it took a while) and once I granted him access he proceeded to educate me in the art of playing Roblox. At that moment I remembered who the child was behind him. The shadow behind him stood timid and anxious to do well. To show everyone that he could do well, just as I felt when I was an EL student. Just as Alan did when he showed me his ebooks and how well he could read.
“You have to hear me!” He yelled, and I’m confident he would have not let me go if I hadn’t.
Admittedly, I’m positively overwhelmed hearing and seeing the changes that the SRCS school district has made for their students. I was a child who received no support in my English proficiency during my time in elementary school and the trauma and loneliness of that experience is something I hope no other kid has to go through. However, it was through student and community advocacy as well as voices that SRCS got these good things for their EL population. Just because students are now getting the bare minimum doesn’t mean our schools should stop there.