Matias Bernal is a student at CSU Fresno.  He moved to Fresno eight years ago when he was 14.  He didn’t know English, and was placed in the English Language Development (ELD) program at McLane High School.

“When I enrolled in school, I didn’t understand the system,” says Bernal.  “No one explained to me that I was in a separate program.  I had to notice the difference for myself.  I also noticed a stigma placed on students in my classes.”

He explains how he felt that there were very low expectations for him and the other students in the ELD classes.  The curriculum he was given had books with more pictures than words.

Matias started asking about his classes.  During one class, he noticed a poster that highlighted the “A-G” courses students must complete to be eligible for a four-year university.  He took the initiative and decided to ask his school counselor how could take the courses.  It was then that he learned he was classified as an English Language Learner (ELL) and was only taking classes in the ELD program, not the classes other students were taking to be eligible for college.  He realized that if he stayed in the ELD program, it would limit his opportunities for a higher education.

ELL students must be redesignated to Fluent English Proficient (FEP) in order complete and take the A-G courses, which must be completed in order to be eligible to attend a University of California or California State University.  Students who are not redesignated often enter community college with a low score on their entrance exams, and end up taking courses in college that they should have completed in high school.

Matias felt that the best choice for a quality education was to attend a four-year university.  Obtaining his redesignation from ELL to FEP in high school was his first step to success.  To start, he made it a priority to learn English as quickly as he could.

“People ask me how I learned English so fast,” he says.  “I associated with students that didn’t speak Spanish.  This forced me to use English.  Also, I was not offended when someone corrected me.  I took it as an opportunity to learn.”

After passing an exam, Matias was redesignated in his junior year.  He went on to complete many advanced placement classes, to the point that he started attending CSU Fresno as a sophomore.  He’s served as President of Fresno State’s Moot Court and ACLU, and is preparing to complete four degrees.  His degrees are in Political Science, Criminology, Spanish, and English Literature.

Matias knows that he was one of the lucky ones.  Most students in his position never obtain resignation.  He recognizes that there are many students who continue through high school unaware that they are classified as an English Language Learner.  Worse, many drop out of high school because they are so far behind their peers.  Matias believes that schools need to have a system in place to explain to students the redesignation process and the importance of obtaining FEP status as soon as possible.

Matias Bernal is an exception to what most researchers agree on; if students don't leave ELL status by the end of elementary school, their prospects diminish.  Matias encourages all ELL students to work toward becoming redesignated as soon as they can, and not to be afraid to ask questions regarding their education.  Designation as FEP allows them to pursue a quality education, and offers their best chance for success down the road.

Lupe Mejia is a father of three and a former English Language Learner.  Raised in the U.S. in a migrant farm-working family, he was expected to enlist in the military, work on farms, and care for his family.  There was no value placed on education.

In 2006, Mr. Mejia decided to become more involved with his son’s school, becoming a member of the school council.  Soon, other schools asked him to participate in their programs.  He started to address areas that needed improvement, including working with parents of English Language Learner (ELL) students.  He confesses that, before becoming involved, he was one of the many parents that believed the school is solely responsible for his children’s education.

“I was heavily involved with the schools for two years before I first learned how the ELD system works,” says Mr. Mejia.  “Like many parents of ELL students, I didn’t know that my own sons were classified as ELL, or that they needed to be redesignated as Fluent English Proficient (FEP) before high school in order to take A-G courses.”

Thousands of parents are unaware of their children’s ELL classification.  The process of the initial classification is not being explained to them, nor the process of redesignation.  Many parents assume that things are going well just because their children are progressing grade level to grade level.  Parents are in the dark when it comes to being informed of the requirements for a student to attend a four-year university.

Mr. Mejia feels that communication with parents of ELL students needs to be greatly improved within the school district.  The flyers, surveys, and other written notifications are not sufficient, and the school liaisons are often not available for the needs of ELL families.

In 2008, Mr. Mejia became President of the District English Learner Advisory Committee (DELAC), a group of elected parents whose children are classified as ELL.  The purpose of DELAC is to advise the district governing board on programs and services available for their students in order to achieve academic success.  Mr. Mejia’s duties as President are to ensure that the programs designed to help the ELL student population are on track and presented to parents.  He wants to improve communication with parents about their children’s ELL status, and track the progress of students being redesignated as FEP, making the records available to parents.

But there is more that needs to be done.  Recent data from the California Department of Education reports that in the Fresno Unified School District, during the 2008-2009 school year, there were nearly 20,000 students classified as ELL.  Only 10% of them obtained redesignation from ELL to FEP.

Mr. Mejia learned firsthand the important role that parents should have in their children’s education.  For parents of ELL students, a school’s lack of communication is often another barrier to overcome.  His advice to schools is to make more of an effort to reach them.  His advice to parents is become more involved and aware.

“Get involved, get to know your principal and teachers,” he notes.  “Learn all the details and rules of what it is to be an English Language Learner in school.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  We can all work together.”


Inspiration Spotlight

English Language Learners in Fresno

In this spotlight, we feature two former English Language Learners that observed a lack of communication within the English Language Development (ELD) program, and how it impacts many students.

Student Matias Bernal learned the value of redesignation from English Language Learner (ELL) to Fluent Language Proficient (FEP), and how many students are not even aware of the system.  Parent Lupe Mejia became involved with schools and saw a need for improved communication with ELL families regarding their children’s classification.