Thousands of Florida students 'trapped' in ESOL, never catch up

Orlando SentinelJune 30, 2013 

Cynthia Quezada is a "lifer" -- the nickname teachers give to students who've been confined, year after year, to classes for those struggling with English.

If the term conveys a sense of hopelessness, that's not a coincidence. Across the state, most students new to speaking English are fully integrated into regular classes after three years. But in Central Florida alone, there are thousands of students like Quezada who have been languishing in the system for six, seven, eight or more years, with their chances of catching up diminishing by the day.

The problem is particularly acute in Orange County, which was cited in a state audit last year for keeping students in English-language programs for too long. More than 1,800 students who attended Orange County schools this past year had entered English for Speakers of Other Languages classes at least six years earlier.

"If a student can't exit, that's a huge problem," said Chane Eplin, who oversees the state's ESOL program. "No one is supposed to be trapped in ESOL."

And the stakes couldn't be higher because, too often, their inability to master English means they can't pass the state's 10th-grade FCAT reading exam even after multiple tries. And that means they can't earn a high-school diploma.

"Would you like to take a test in Urdu?" said Rosa Castro Feinberg, state education committee chairwoman for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

"You are testing the kids and expecting them to learn a language and learn everything else at the same rate native English speakers are learning it," she said. "It's not fair. It penalizes the kids and their school."

Repeated failure of the FCAT can constrain students' class choices, keep them from moving up a grade and harm their prospects for good jobs and college.

It also "harms the psyche" and "retards academic progress," Castro Feinberg said. That's because students may be placed in remedial classes they don't need and even can lead to being held back in school. "They can't do the impossible. They get discouraged and drop out. It's a serious, serious deal."

Most of Florida's 2,691,322 ESOL students are either new immigrants or young bilingual children whose English skills need polishing.

Those who become lifers are different. They typically start in American schools with a poor foundation in reading and writing in their first language. The English-only focus in Florida schools leaves them further adrift and struggling from the start, even as critics insist bilingual education could give these children a much better chance.

State FCAT tests are a particular frustration for them. In Orange County and some other districts, students must pass the reading FCAT to leave their ESOL classes. That means they're kept out of mainstream English classes -- the very ones that are designed to prepare them for that test.

"It's nonsensical, if you think about it," said Dan Hayes, an ESOL teacher at Evans High School in Orange County. Nearly half of all students who take the 10th-grade reading FCAT fail. "A lot of native speakers never pass," he said.

A lost decade

Cynthia Quezada, 18, spent 10 years and 10 months as an ESOL student, according to district records. And her longevity is not unique. In the past two years, Orange County reported 268 cases of students spending 10 years in the program.

Florida officially requires students from third grade up to pass the FCAT reading test to leave ESOL. But there is a way around it. An educator or parent can request a special committee meeting to consider the child's case.

In Orange County, that process has broken down.

That comes as no surprise to Orange officials who oversee ESOL. Beginning in January, they began pushing schools to take a second look at students who had been classified as English learners for five years or more.

"We want to make sure they haven't been forgotten," said Magali Rassel, who left Orange schools this spring after overseeing its ESOL program for four years.

Carol Duberstein, who handles ESOL compliance at Wekiva High School in Orange County, said that the committees don't meet regularly at all schools, instead waiting for students to pass the state reading test on their own.

ESOL isn't inherently bad. "Good ESOL is good pedagogy," she said.

But Duberstein, who regularly emails district and state officials about the red tape faced by English-language learners, said the intent isn't always so altruistic.

"They would rather take the money and ignore the child," Duberstein said.

Florida's system gives schools extra money for ESOL students for up to six years, regardless of their performance. After six years, the district must provide services from its own funds.

But Eplin, the state director, defends the program. "Nobody's trying to keep them in except to benefit the student," Eplin said, citing bilingual education for some students and extra time on the FCAT.

Last year, a state audit found Orange County Public Schools was collecting money for students who had been in the program for more than six years, contrary to state rules. The push to re-evaluate those students was a direct result.

After that, the number of students in Orange's ESOL programs for six years or longer plummeted by 28.7 percent in one year. The drop occurred even as the county's total number of English-language learners jumped by more than 10 percent.

'More time'

But removing students from ESOL doesn't mean they're succeeding. Quezada found ESOL classes to be a safe, comfortable space where she could spend time with other Spanish speakers. She didn't want to leave. But she didn't feel challenged there.

"We didn't read a lot, but we read books here and there," she said of her ESOL courses. In her junior year, she was told that a committee had decided to remove her because she'd been in the program for so long.

"When they changed me, I got to read books like 'Hamlet,'" she said.

But she still found herself failing to understand some words and questions on the 10th-grade reading FCAT test, which is a graduation requirement.

"It's harder for the people who came here and had to learn the language and don't have the same abilities as the ones who lived here their whole life," said Quezada, who was born in the Dominican Republic and entered Orange County schools at age 6.

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