Pupils learning English feel supported, perform better, teacher and students say
Arden Pennell / Palo Alto Online
In an English Language Learners class at Gunn High School, junior Juan Carlos Diaz Flores, senior Jessica Samayoa, junior Marisol Ortiz, and freshman Edoardo De Armas chat before class starts. Photo by Marjan Sadoughi/Palo Alto Online.
Race may be used to define the Palo Alto school district's achievement gap -- black and Hispanic students as groups score lower than other ethnicities -- but a look at students in Gunn's English Language Development program shows that social factors also play a role in the disparity.
Hispanic students from around the world may not speak perfect English -- but they strive to succeed and usually score well, instructor Rick Jacobs said.
"The typical [English-learning student is high achieving. ... The report cards from my students are very high," he said.
Students in the program usually come from well-off, educated backgrounds, he said.
"The average student in our program has a parent that's employed at Silicon Valley or at Stanford and their whole purpose in bringing the kids here is to have them graduate from Gunn and go on to college," he said.
In contrast, many voluntary-transfer students lack financial resources, he said.
"A Spanish-speaking student you might meet in the VTP program has not had the same economic experience" as the students in his classes, Jacobs said.
And unlike tales of teacher misunderstanding or suspicion from East Palo Alto students, the English-learning students spoke only of compassionate staff.
"All the teachers in all the subjects know when you're not from here. They try to help," said junior Marisol Ortiz, who is studying at Gunn for the year before returning to Mexico.
"When the kids laugh at me, teachers stop them," agreed freshman Edoardo de Armas, who moved to Palo Alto two years ago from Venezuela.
Although he hasn't been here long, Edoardo's speech is already peppered with slang words such as "hecka" -- he has already assimilated easily into local culture and schools.
East Palo Alto students have a very different experience when they arrive at the district, Jacobs said.
"They often are being moved from their home community where they feel very secure to a community unlike their own, with a different ethnic make-up," he said.
The only Hispanic students who seem to fit the "achievement gap" mold are a handful from Guatemala and Mexico, he said.
Those countries have weaker schools than the U.S. and the students' parents are less likely to be wealthy or highly educated, he said.