In San Jose, Using Common Core to Turn English Learners into Leaders

In San Jose, Using Common Core to Turn English Learners into Leaders

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SAN JOSE, Calif -- For high school English teacher Juddson Taube, California’s shift to the Common Core has meant that he no longer feels like a “salesman” in his class.

“Selling kids on whole novels is tough, it’s actually hard to get kids to engage in the content and read whole books,” said Taube, 33. “At best, 50 percent of the kids were reading the whole novel.” In the past, Taube instructed his class – most of whom don’t speak English as a first language – with classic works like Fahrenheit 451, the Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye, to name a few. The last two tended to be more popular with the students, but since the move to Common Core many of these have been replaced with non-fiction essays and even on-line clips from news and social media sites.

Since then, however, Taube says he’s seen a dramatic increase in the number of students engaging with the material and even in the number of students turning in their homework. Taube teaches at Latino College Prep Academy, a charter school in East San Jose and part of the East Side Union High School District. The school opened in 2001 and caters to the area’s sizable Spanish-speaking immigrant community. The school enrolled 450 students this year – 95 percent low income, and 70 percent English Language Learners.

Latino academic achievement rates in California have traditionally lagged behind those of other communities. That is especially the case for English Learners, who now make up a quarter of the state’s public school population. But the approach at LCPA – which includes a staff that is predominantly bilingual – has led to some impressive results. According to the school’s website, over 90 percent of graduating seniors went on to a two or four-year college of their choice.

On a recent afternoon, students in one of Taube’s senior English classes sit analyzing multiple articles for an essay they have to write about their stance on social media, something the students use everyday. Taube says the lesson is an example of how Common Core allows teachers to bring the lives of the students into the classroom, connecting their everyday experiences with their studies. California adopted the Common Core in 2010. Districts across the state have since been working to implement the new standards, a heavy lift involving everything from teacher training to developing new curricular materials and enhancing school’s tech capacity ahead of the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests this Spring.

The standards place more emphasis on critical thinking and analysis than the previous California State Standards and require students to not only get the answer but be able to explain the process. For English Learners that means more use of the language and a more sophisticated vocabulary.But students at LCPA seem to welcome the challenge. Ruben Martinez, 17, is a senior there. He says he spent years being frustrated at how teachers in elementary school tried to get him to learn English. “It got me irritated because you’re expecting me to learn a language by repeating the same lessons over and over again that I’ve already learned.”

His classmate Sergio Moreno,17, agrees. He says before coming to LCPA he grew so bored in class that he often ended up getting in trouble. “I could mess around, do anything, the teachers would probably give me detention but I would continue to do it.” Both say that since coming to LCPA their grades have steadily improved, something they credit to the school’s educational approach.

According to a recent study by the education advocacy group Education Trust-West, California schools such as LCPA that have been proactive in implementing Common Core have shown dramatic improvements in educating their English Learner populations.

The study surveyed nearly 300 schools around the state with 100 or more English Learners and while its authors did acknowledge the new standards do pose challenges for this group, they also noted that schools that showed the best results were those that held English Learners to the same high standards as other students.

David Devia, 17, emigrated from Columbia at age eight. Now a senior at LCPA he says he’s been able to transition out of the English Learner track and is “more comfortable” with high school level English.

“Before I didn’t really have the potential to keep up with other students … now I can keep up, and sometimes I can actually be the leader.”

Veronica T. Avendaño wrote this article as part of the Informed Communities Education Reporting Fellowship, a partnership between New America Media and Silicon Valley Community Foundation.