BHS Spanish Teacher Lobbies for Diagnostic Testing

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 02, 2008 - 09:25:00 AM

Visitors to Berkeley High School’s annual back-to-school night last Thursday might not remember the eight Latino students quietly handing out flyers to passers-by amid all the excitement of registering for different tutorials and after-school programs. 

But this small group is determined not to have their efforts overlooked. 

Titled “I need your help!” the flyer asked community members to lobby the administration at Berkeley High to introduce diagnostic testing in Spanish for native speakers of the language immediately, something the school currently lacks but is working to implement, school authorities said. 

Spearheading the effort is Eugenio “Janu” Juarez, a former coach for the Berkeley High boys’ soccer team, who also teaches Spanish at the school’s World Language Program. 

Juarez was in the news earlier this year when Berkeley High replaced him as the soccer coach after what some community activists said were complaints filed against him for disrespecting his players. He also played a prominent role in supporting the family of Berkeley High student Yonas Mehari, who was shot to death on Thanksgiving Day in 2006 during a family feud in North Oakland. 

Today, Juarez describes himself as an activist fighting for the rights of Latino minority students for more than a decade to close the achievement gap at Berkeley High. 

“The Berkeley Unified School District and Berkeley High claim to value diversity, but they have discriminated against Spanish-speaking language minority students for years,” he said. “How do they do this? By not giving students diagnostic exams in Spanish. Instead, native Spanish speakers are placed in [Spanish] classes at random. Overworked counselors, in a mad rush to complete schedules, put students in whatever class they find open on any given period.” 

Juarez said that when native Spanish speakers were placed in a [Spanish] class that failed to meet their level, the students often performed poorly because they did not find the classes challenging enough. An added difficulty, he said, is that sometimes students who speak Spanish at home might not perform well in a Spanish class because they do not know many of the academic rules of the language, the criteria for much of their grade. 

Berkeley High Vice Principal Maggie Heredia-Peltz said the high school would be discussing the implementation of diagnostic testing with the district’s Department of Evaluation and Assessment on Friday. 

“It’s something I feel is very important,” said Heredia-Peltz, who is Latino and moved to Berkeley three years ago from the Midwest. “Sure, we can do a lot of testing, but we don’t want to test students just for the sake of it.” 

Juarez said although diagnostic testing was compulsory from grades K–8, the district placed native Spanish speakers in Spanish language classes based on teacher recommendations.  

“That, and we also look at each student individually,” Heredia-Peltz said. “The way our Spanish class works is that, when students come to us from district schools, we take the teachers’ recommendations and we assume that they are on target. If it’s a student who comes to Berkeley High from a Spanish-speaking country, then they get assessed through initial testing and the English Language Learners program.” 

Juarez said he objected to native Spanish speakers being assigned to a basic level Spanish class, which he said was usually where anglophones (English speakers learning to speak Spanish) were placed.  

“For those who have Spanish as their first language it’s a waste of time,” he said. “They get bored with the class, and sometimes they say nothing and end up failing it. When kids have problems in class, they cannot play the sports they want. So they end up on the street or go to gangs. The school is in part responsible for their failure. This is the age of testing. We give exit exams, STAR tests, but we do not give diagnostic tests to Spanish-speaking students. That’s discrimination.” 

Heredia-Peltz dismissed Juarez’s allegations that the school was discriminating against minority students. 

“I was an English-language learner myself,” she said. “As a minority I can tell you that’s definitely what we are trying to do. We definitely want to empower all our students, but first we have to identify the problem. We want to have meaningful solutions. Mr. Juarez is aware that there is an ongoing conversation about this. He is a part of it.” 

Jaimez Rodriguez, a Berkeley High sophomore who grew up speaking Spanish at home, said he found his Spanish 7 class, which Juarez described as being of an intermediate level, boring because it was so easy. 

“I was taking French, but I wanted Spanish, and they just gave this class to me,” he said. 

Heredia-Peltz said that if a student  

wasn’t finding a particular Spanish class challenging enough, he or she could ask their counselor to switch the class with a more competitive one. 

“It’s just a matter of a simple conversation,” she said. “The student’s name does not necessarily give us the information about their proficiency level ... We also need to see if he passed his previous class.” 

Juarez also charged that the school conducted diagnostic testing in Spanish for white students from private schools, an allegation that Heredia-Peltz described as baseless. 

“We don’t just say you are a private school student, let’s test you,” she said. “It depends on what kind of middle school they are coming from. They would typically sign up for a first-level Spanish class, unless they are native speakers, in which case they sign up for native language Spanish classes. And private school students are not always white.”