In an event that was months in the planning, more than 300 members of Berkeley churches packed St. Joseph the Worker Church Monday night to hear school district officials publicly pledge to reform the English Language Learner program at Berkeley High.
The majority in the audience were St. Joseph parishioners of Latino heritage who contend that students in the ELL program receive an inferior education, making it difficult for them to gain entry to four-year colleges and, beyond that, high-paying professions. (Forty percent of the ELL program’s 350 students are Latino).
St. Joseph’s Father George Crespin opened the meeting, delivering a solemn message to Berkeley High Principal Frank Lynch and two members of the Board of Education: Board President Terry Doran and Board Director Joaquin Rivera.
“We aren’t going to accept any more that our students aren’t successful (in school), and that this is considered normal,” Father Crespin said in fluent Spanish, to a roar of applause from the audience.
It fell to St. Joseph parishioner Maribel Rodriguez to detail complaints against the ELL program. Near the top of the list was concern that many students are placed in the program unnecessarily and then remain in the program because they don’t know how to get out.
The ELL program is intended for students who need help improving their English skills before they enroll in regular classes at Berkeley High. Rodriguez said some students end up in the program even though they have been enrolled in Berkeley schools since kindergarten and are fluent in English.
After Rodriguez spoke, half a dozen Berkeley High students gave testimonials about how they were wrongly assigned to the ELL program, or how they were held in the program long after the time when they were ready to move into regular classes at Berkeley High.
Berkeley resident Eva Perez said after the meeting Monday that the problems experienced by students today are the same problems she faced as a Berkeley High freshman more than 10 years ago.
“It’s sad to see after 10 years the same things repeating,” she said.
Perez was born and raised in Berkeley and graduated from Berkeley High in 1991. Despite being fluent in English, she said she was placed in the Berkeley High ELL program after writing on an official document that she spoke Spanish at home with her parents.
The confusion was quickly cleared up when her mother went to the school to demand an explanation, Perez said. But many students don’t understand clearly what the ELL program is, Perez said, and don’t think to ask why they’ve been assigned to it.
“A lot of time students don’t know what’s going on, so they don’t tell their parents,” Perez said.
Other complaints leveled against the ELL program Monday focused on what happens to students once they are in the program. Speakers delivered grievance after grievance: that students in the program are taught core subjects like math and history at lower levels than other Berkeley High students; that students in the program don’t have enough access to Berkeley High classes outside the program; and that some of the English classes offered in the program don’t count toward English credits needed to be eligible for admission to University of California or California State University colleges.
School officials refuted many of the claims made Monday night in interviews Tuesday.
Rita Perez, home school liaison for the Berkeley High ELL program, said all students are carefully assessed so that only those with limited English skills are placed in ELL classes at Berkeley High. Students are reassessed continually while at Berkeley High to see if they are ready to move into regular classes, she said.
Moving students into mainstream classes is the whole point of the ELL program, Perez said.
As for access to other Berkeley High classes, Perez said ELL students are free to devise any schedule that they want. They can take all ELL classes, some ELL classes and some regular classes, or all regular classes, she said. It’s just a matter of either having the parents sign a waiver saying they don’t want to be in ELL classes, or passing an English proficiency test so they are no longer classified as having “limited” English.
“If they decide they want to be in mainstream classes, we’re not going to say no,” Perez said.
Berkeley High Principal Frank Lynch said some of the concerns registered Monday were legitimate and pledged to work with the St. Joseph parishioners to see that they are addressed. But he also defended the ELL program, saying the ELL staff is hard working and dedicated to the work of preparing students with limited English to take full advantage of Berkeley High’s academic offerings.
Director Rivera said after the meeting Monday that he would work over the summer to identify exactly what the problems are with the ELL program and to communicate his findings to the St. Joseph’s parishioners.
“They really presented what their concerns are in a very positive and productive way that really opened the door to true dialogue and collaboration,” Rivera said.