CALEXICO, California —Jesus Ruiz left the United States as a small child. When he returned and entered junior high school he had to re-learn the language he had forgotten. It was hard for him, but Ruiz, now 20, never stopped pursuing his dream of an education and learning English was only another hurdle to overcome.
“I remember that my motivation played a huge part in my learning,” Ruiz said. “I was in this reading program where all students were required to read and accumulate a certain amount of points. If we went way past our goal, we got a reward for achieving it. The reward system really helped me because it gave me a reason to read a lot of books in English.”
Ruiz began his studies as a bilingual student at William Moreno Junior High and eventually graduated from Calexico High School in 2007. Today Ruiz is a shipping clerk in a predominantly English-speaking business and a student at Imperial Valley College. He has plans to become a civil engineer.
As tarnished as its reputation may be because of high unemployment, pollution, and illiteracy, Imperial County does have a specialized system to help foreign students learn. When immigrants such as Ruiz come to the U.S. looking for a brighter future they hit the same barrier —understanding English. “I remember having these two friends who would frown or make fun of me when I spoke a mix of English and Spanish. It’s ironic that they are the ones who are struggling to learn English now,” Ruiz said.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, immigrants account for 27 percent of California’s population, a percentage that is constantly growing. In the Imperial County system they find a wide range of programs, including bilingual and English Language Development programs that make the transition to English easier for foreign students.
Located in the southeastern corner of California in the border town of Calexico, Calexico High School draws students from its sister city, Mexicali, among other places. Students who need extra help with the language go to particular courses depending on their skill level. Gilbert Mendez, Calexico High School’s administrator, explained that different types of programs such as primary language classes, math, history, and science, can be taught entirely in Spanish or bilingually. English Language Development (ELD) classes are taught in English, but they are modified with visual aids or organization tools to help the students understand instructions. This method, called “scaffolding,” is used less as students improve, adapting to their new learning level. “We might do an activity where they experience a particular setting in history,” Mendez explained. “For example, World War I. I put them in the trenches, between the desks. They have no experience with that sort of thing. You have to use a variety of methods; you have to read, you have to write, you have to do this in order to speak, you have to experience in many ways as possible,” he said.
Daniel Thornburg, an English teacher at the high school, taught Ruiz when he passed into an advanced-placement English class. Even at that level, Thornburg further cemented the fundamentals for language acquisition by encouraging participation, making students active readers with text revision, promoting critical thinking and always encouraging them to speak English. “That’s the way you learn a language, by you speaking it,” Thornburg said.
Brian McNeece, one of the English professors at Imperial Valley College, also uses a variety of ways to facilitate the language transition for his students. McNeece explains how adapting a series of diverse exercises to the students’ comprehension level will enable them to absorb the material.
Demonstration and imitation allows the students to understand part of the language by giving them a visual representation of the action taking place, enabling them to compare the wording describing the action with the wording they would have used in their own language. “I stand up and I would say, ‘I am standing up.’ Then I ask them stand up and I would say, ‘You are standing up,’ “McNeece said. Oral communication, as well as writing, must be gradually incorporated in a comprehensive manner in order to be successfully assimilated, he said.
Both Mendez and Erasmo Zayas, another Calexico High English teacher expressed their concern about policies that put unnecessary pressure on students. They believe that California standards for education force them to spend more time preparing students for the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), a requirement for graduation. If students arrive in a later year, there is not enough time for them to learn enough English to pass the test. “We are teaching how to pass a test. There’s no real room for intellectual assessment,” Zayas said.
Zayas said California standards force the instructors to focus on helping students pass the test instead of letting teachers focus on the students’ weaknesses. “They don’t even want me to teach proper grammar to the students. If anything is working, it’s because teachers have found ways around the standards,” Zayas said.
Students may also create obstacles to their own development. Attitude, goals, expectations, and dedication are huge factors in a successful outcome for those who want to learn a new language. If students are unable to integration into the new society, chances are they won’t succeed. The fate of the individual ultimately depends on the individual.
Just ask Jesus Ruiz: “Well, I’m here aren’t I?”