Looking beyond the grade: Pasco Schools

PASCO, Wash. -- It is a language barrier that begins in Pasco's elementary schools and ends in Olympia. The state has given Pasco's elementary schools a failing grade. But staff said it's not because their students are flunking, it's because the state is testing the students in a foreign language.

Tanya Huffman has been teaching for 12 years, the grade remains the same, but her students have changed. "Our students are a culmination of many things and that includes their cultures and our students here at Chess Elementary and in Pasco. Their culture is Spanish," said Huffman.

Pasco School District has more than triple the state average of Spanish speaking students, many of whom come from non-English speaking homes. It's a unique demographic, anything but standardized.

"These students are succeeding," said Huffman. "They're learners, active, they want to show all they can; it's a language barrier right now." The problem, say teachers and staff, is that the state only speaks English.

"If I were back in my high school days, in my second year of Spanish having to take ACT or SAT in Spanish, it would be very difficult," explained Huffman. "I don't think we'd be able to succeed in high school and we're asking third graders to do just that," she said.

The state's tests are standardized around English speakers, and teachers are left to work in ELL students using the old pull-out model. That's where you put a student in a classroom teaching only English and then pull them out for 20 minutes and summarize in Spanish. A "here's English, learn it" approach that would fail students once they reached higher levels of math, reading and science.

That's what Pasco used to use, but now flip the model. In Pasco they now teach Spanish-speaking students in Spanish for 80 percent of the time, English for 20 percent. Each year the students get older, the Spanish decreases and the English increases. The idea is simple; get kids strong in one language before throwing them another.

The results are already in. By tenth grade, under this model, students are surpassing Washington's average and English native students.

"They outperform their counterparts," said Victor Silva, a Literacy Squared Coach. But, for teachers and staff right now at the elementary level, it means putting the failing grades aside to focus on the bigger picture: kids going to college.

"Right now it might seem to the state they're failing, but that's one test once they get to high school they're passing and succeeding," said Huffman.

The new approach is still new. Some parents want their students to learn English more quickly. Silva says it's important to remain patient so that the effort pays off.