KCUSD grows vital English learner programs

Kings Canyon Unified focuses on supplemental programs to support English learner students with language development as over half of the district’s students were, currently are English learners

Navelencia Middle School Principal Jennifer Luevano presents a student with a certificate of achievement for passing the state exam for English proficiency at a ceremony and information night Oct. 17, 2023. (Serena Bettis)
Navelencia Middle School Principal Jennifer Luevano presents a student with a certificate of achievement for passing the state exam for English proficiency at a ceremony and information night Oct. 17, 2023. (Serena Bettis)
Serena Bettis
Published October 17, 2023  • 
3:00 pm

REEDLEY – Twenty seven students at Navelencia Middle School celebrated their Reclassification to Fluent English Proficiency (RFEP) Monday night; they are now considered fluent enough in the language to allow them to expand their learning in the classroom.

Reclassification means students no longer have to take the rigorous, stressful English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC) each year and they can take elective courses in place of their English Language Development (ELD) classes. This opens up opportunities for students to pursue their interests in high school while fulfilling graduation requirements or take courses that help with university credits. 

For seventh-grader Valeria Rivas, she now gets to join the school band and learn to play the alto saxophone. Bilingualism also widens her future career prospects; her mother, Liliana Rivas, works for a packing company and hopes that Valeria will have more options for work than she currently does.

“While taking this important test, I felt very nervous and not sure about whether or not I would pass, but I tried my hardest to reach success,” Valeria said in a speech she gave during the celebration Oct. 17. 

Later on, Valeria said she “felt very proud of myself since I tried for many years to pass and since I finally succeeded, I reached my goal and now I have more goals to complete.”

Navelencia Middle School seventh grader Valeria Rivas reads a speech next to intervention/newcomer teacher Rosa Serrano at a celebration for students who reached the Reclassification Fluent English Proficiency status Oct. 17, 2023. Rivas thanked her teachers for their support while she learned English, especially one teacher who she said gave her the same workload as all the other students. (Serena Bettis)

Celebrations like Monday night’s happen across Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD) sites as schools find ways to encourage their English learner (EL) students and engage families. 

The main event, however, takes place every April, when the district celebrates Dia del Nino, or Children’s Day, to highlight student academic achievements. According to KCUSD, the district had 2,500 people in attendance at the most recent Dia del Nino, including 400 student performers and 40 school and district groups and community partners. 

This size of celebration is indicative of the kind of energy and support KCUSD puts into its EL population, the majority of which is comprised of native Spanish speakers. In addition to the curriculum mandated by the state of California for EL students, KCUSD has developed multiple supplemental programs to ensure students can succeed in an academic environment. 

Laurie Lloyd, the lead specialist for the ELD and migrant programs at the district, said it’s particularly important for KCUSD to offer these supports because of how many students they have who are currently or once were classified as English learners. 

About 28% of KCUSD are ELs currently, and 28% are RFEP, meaning they were once ELs as well. In total, the district has one of the highest numbers of EL students in the county — second only to Fresno Unified School District — at around 57% of the district population. 

“When we provide that language development, that’s benefiting every student,” Lloyd said. 

Twenty seven students at Navelencia Middle School pose with their certificates of achievement for reaching the Reclassified Fluent English Proficient status that is set by the state of California. English learners must take a rigorous exam each year until they meet this reclassification. (Serena Bettis)

Supplemental support

One way that KCUSD provides extra support for EL students is through teaching them language specific to the academic environment to help them understand directions on exams and in the classroom. 

The district does this through the Saturday Academic Language Academy (SALA) program, which KCUSD began about seven years ago and recently expanded to run in both the spring and fall. SALA consists of three to four Saturday sessions for EL students in first through eighth grade and is run at five school sites across the district. 

Lloyd said the district looks at testing data to identify students in need and invite them to participate in the program. The sessions focus on language used in school and academic settings, like words and phrases they would encounter in textbooks and on exams, throughout all content areas.

“The language piece is really important because there’s very specific academic language on our state assessment, and understanding that vocabulary is a key to accessing the test,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd said one of her favorite parts about the SALA program is that the teachers who participate in it see a lot of benefits from the training they receive to be able to run the sessions. 

“That training is around targeted instructional strategies and practices that are aimed at the English learners language acquisition,” Lloyd said. “The teachers that work during the Saturdays then take those practices and take them to the Monday through Friday classrooms.”

The EL students in those classes then benefit from the training that teacher has had, even if the students themselves do not attend the SALA classes. 

Another program KCUSD has for English learner students is the newcomer/migrant program, which — as its name suggests — is geared toward supporting students who recently moved to the United States. 

“(Newcomer) students do tend to take a little longer to reclassify,” Lloyd said, “which is why we are really focusing on that group. We’ve recently really taken a look at our model to support newcomers and we’ve made some changes … to really systematically reach our newcomer students and provide specialized instruction.”

Lloyd said these students typically have specific language and socio-emotional needs in order to succeed in the school environment. To meet those needs, the district provides differentiated support based on a student’s background. 

Rosa Serrano, the intervention/newcomer teacher at Navelencia Middle School, said that for students who attended school in their home country, they can usually grasp onto English quicker than students who did not receive much education prior to their enrollment at KCUSD. Schools also have to adapt their program based on what the student’s native language is; Serrano speaks Spanish, so she can interact with Spanish-speaking students more easily than others.

Navelencia Middle School intervention/newcomer language development teacher Rosa Serrano explains to parents what it means for students to pass the Reclassification Fluent English Proficiency standard required of English language learners by the state of California Oct. 17, 2023. Twenty seven Navelencia students were celebrated at the event after they passed all levels of the exam. (Serena Bettis)

For example, Serrano said has been working with a new student from Yemen who speaks Arabic. Not only does he have to learn how to speak a new language, he has to learn an entirely different alphabet in order to understand English and follow along in class. 

While that does pose additional challenges, Serrano said she receives a lot of support from the district through Lloyd and through learning technologies like Rosetta Stone. 

Learning English in KCUSD 

English language acquisition generally takes students between five to six years to achieve if they enter the district at the first level, Lloyd said. There are four different levels to the state assessment, and students retake the assessment each year until they reclassify to English proficiency. 

To show that they are proficient in English, students have to score the highest level on the ELPAC and meet other locally-determined criteria. Lloyd said parents and teachers have input on a specific student’s proficiency and the district also compares where students are in their skills with their peers who speak English as their primary language. 

Lloyd said it’s important for students to reach the RFEP status, because district data shows that there is an achievement gap between EL students and English-speaking students.

“When we provide additional opportunities for ELs, that’s helping to close that gap,” Lloyd said. “When students are reclassified, that’s a big academic milestone for our students; they work really hard to achieve that accomplishment.”

One of the most important parts about the process is for the district and teachers to know who each student is and provide the specific support that they need. 

Serrano said a piece of that is also not letting students fade into the background or feel invisible. She said teachers should recognize that just because a student’s language skills may not be where they should be, they still have other skills in their primary language and they should be challenged the same as any other students.

“A lot of times we might feel like ‘oh, they’re so low,’ and because they are so shy and they are so quiet, they are OK with being invisible, like don’t call on me,” Serrano said. “But at the same time I think they’re hungry for knowledge too.”

She said that a big part of a student’s success is both their own motivation and how much the district and school provides them with extra support and holds them accountable.

“It takes a lot of practice and at first it’s really slow and then it’s like an explosion of all this language, acquiring it,” Serrano said.

Navelencia Middle School intervention/newcomer teacher Rosa Serrano poses for a photo in the main office of the school before an event celebrating students who are now considered fluent in English according to California state standards Oct. 17, 2023. Of the students who achieve English fluency, Serrano said, "They're more confident; you get to see who they really are." (Serena Bettis)

Once students reach that point, Serrano said “you get to see who they really are,” as they become more confident and more engaged. 

Schools see that in action when students like Valeria, who is quiet but dedicated to her schoolwork, get up to speak in front of a large group of people at the celebration Navelencia held. 

Through translation help from Serrano, Valeria’s mother Liliana said she feels proud of her daughter because “she’s always been a student that is wanting to do more in her life; she wants to overcome her challenges.”

Liliana said that her part is to support Valeria, as she always tells her to try her best and talks to her about the long hours she spends at work and how “she doesn’t want that for (Valeria), she wants her to have more choices, and that’s why she’s working hard so that she can provide for her and her role is to try her best to be a good student.”

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter