Will Los Angeles schools serve English learners this year?

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Mireya Pacheco (top left) and her three daughters, Mireyari, 17 (top right), Hossanna, 11, (bottom left) and Nefthali, 9 are beginning the new school year from their two-bedroom apartment in Pacoima. When the pandemic hit, dad lost work and the three girls started distance learning with a computer too outdated to run the programs they needed. Photo by Matt Rogers for KCRW.

In June, Hossanna Pacheco graduated 5th grade over Zoom. Now the Pacoima tween is set to start middle school from a Chromebook on her living room couch. Hossanna is excited, but her mom, Mireya Pacheco, is not.

“I’m worried,” Pacheco says. “I don’t know how we will do it.”

School officials statewide admitted they couldn’t adequately serve tens of thousands of students in the spring when the stay-at-home orders forced schooling online. 

Mireya Pacheco says Hossanna, who was on track to gaining academic proficiency in English, didn’t make any progress. 

“My daughter was receiving tutoring before the pandemic from a very good teacher [at school]. But after COVID, she didn’t get a single service to help her with English,” Pacheco says. 

Hossanna Pacheco speaks English well but she struggles with academic English. When distance learning began, her school tutoring stopped. Her mother hopes this school year she will receive the specialized instruction she needs. Photo by Matt Rogers for KCRW.

There are 1.1 million English learners in California, and 250,000 live in LA County . The law mandates these students receive targeted services to improve their academic English. 

Sandy Mendoza of Families in Schools , a local parent advocacy organization,  says many students appear to have not received any English language (EL) services in the spring. 

Her group surveyed more than 300 families. “We had 70% responding that they didn't feel the spring experience was really addressing [English] language learner needs,” she says.

Mendoza worries that despite parents like Mireya Pacheco advocating for their children, their voices were not included at any of the official planning meetings for spring instruction. 

Civil rights attorney Anurima Bhargava has direct experience with California failing its English learners. She served as the Chief of the Educational Opportunities Section at the Justice Department during the Obama administration. 

“In 2013 we heard that public schools in California had sent certified reports to the state admitting that they had not served more than 20,000 English learners,” Bhargava says. 

Bhargava says this is a civil rights issue, and worries that English learners may be forgotten again, this time due to the distance learning environment. 

Veronica Aguila runs the English Learner Support Division at the California Department of Education. She knows there are plenty of challenges, but she also sees some pluses when it comes to distance learning. For one thing, students can access online translation in real time. Also, Zoom lets a teacher split kids into groups based on where they need help. 

At Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, the LAUSD charter school where Hosanna attended, director of the upper grades, Karen Muehlberger, was honest. “The spring really knocked everyone for a loop.” 

But her staff spent the summer preparing, and she says her EL students will be receiving daily targeted teacher attention over Zoom. “We will be having 40 minutes of face-to-face learning, direct instruction,” she says.

Mireya Pacheco hopes that school officials will prioritize students like Hossanna. “The truth is I feel frustrated,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like schools are not really giving students what they need. They focus more on the kids who are doing much better, and I don’t think that is fair.”

Mireya Pacheco is organizing her small apartment to serve as a classroom for her three daughters. Pacheco has been involved in various parent organizing groups to push for all English learner children, including her daughter Hossanna, to get specialized language instruction required by law. She feels frustrated that her community’s voice has not been listened to by LAUSD district officials. Photo by Matt Rogers for KCRW.




Jarrett Hill