Lost Fifth - graders

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L A Wood,  Berkeley Voice, June 24, 1993

Last September I entered the fifth grade a second time, this time as a parent of a 10-year-old student. My last experience with primary education was over 30 years ago. My child and I had no idea of what to expect last fall. Those were our first days in Berkeley's school system and its bilingual program.

Prior to the school year, I had read the newspaper discussion of school operations, educational goals, and issues surrounding white flight. Even those of us without firsthand experience of today's public education know the legacy of Berkeley's elementary and secondary schooling, For over 20 years this education system has made a serious attempt, through strategies like busing, to integrate classes and to build a progressive educational program for all our children.

As a concerned parent of a fifth-grader, I selected a very different style of parent participation. I simply decided to focus all my attention within the classroom. I didn't belong to the PTA, attend any of its meetings, or the long-running discussions involving the bilingual program. Instead, I spent over 100 hours with all the children, including four field trips. I made an honest attempt to help shape and nurture this class of 28 students. Consequently, I was designated as the class parent contact (though I had little parent contact). Parent participation was poor.

Those first days in school were spend interacting with the students, talking and working with them. I listened to them while struggling to learn all their names; I saw their writing compositions and heard them read. We shared in group discussions designed for conflict resolution as well as solving countless math problems. This fifth-grade class was a very special group of children.

It would be difficult to share with you all of what I took away from this bilingual fifth-grade class as a parent/educator. However, I do want to share several things that I learned in school this year.

When you teach math at a history class, the class ceases to be a history class. The same logic applies to bilingual education, When Spanish cannot be taught to the entire class, it ceases to be bilingual. At the time my child entered this class, I made the assumption that he might learn the basic rudiments of Spanish, This was a fair expectation. June has come and it seems this opportunity was lost.

It would be quite easy and very unfair to blame the teacher for this failing. Shortfalls in the bilingual program are a product of a number of selective school politics. One such impact on the classroom is the policy relating to class composition.

Class composition has been affected by the practice of allowing parents to pick teachers. This selection process deeply affects the racial balance of the class as well as their academic achievement and discipline. My own recognition of this phenomenon came early in the school year when I peeked into the other fifth-grade classes. This problem is also reflected in the standard testing performances of the students. A survey of recent CTBS tests bears this out.

Last month the school completed its national CTBS testing. My son's bilingual class achieved well below the 50 percentile range, while the other fifth-grade classes at the same school achieved above this level. I assume that a bilingual class will not perform as well on an English-based test. If so, then this partially accounted for the lower performance scores. It should be noted, however, that over half the students in the class are non-Spanish speaking, This suggests we look elsewhere for the root causes of their low performance.

A more appropriate focus is to ask who are the best candidates to participate in a bilingual program. It can easily be argued that many of the non-Hispanic children in this bilingual class are very poor candidates. A review of individual performances within this group shows the CTBS scores to be much lower than the class average. These are children with other learning difficulties and they should have been in a program more supportive of their needs. A realistic standard for candidacy in the bilingual program is essential.

The class was visited by a number of counselors and teaching assistants, At first, I was puzzled by this flow of staff in and out of the classroom. The process of having children taken from the classroom breaks class concentration and the continuity of the lesson. My son's class was already encumbered by its dual-language requirements. This sort of learning environment for the students perpetuates their difficulties and increases the need for even more counseling time.

It is unfortunate that many of our children do not have an advocate looking out for their best interests. There are half a dozen or more children I encountered this year in need of such an advocate. If I were that advocate, I would have demanded that these children all be removed from the bilingual program. Fifth grade is an educational turning point for many children. Not one of our students can afford to lose a year.

Academic tracking of these students begins next year. Tracking separates the more successful students from the less successful. As many of these children turn 11, their academic success has been predetermined. This fifth grade class has already been subjected to a form of tracking. A 10-year-old can bring a tremendous amount of anger to the classroom. It is a wonder our children learn at all, When a child acts up in class, the disruption is felt by all the students. I was present for many of these events. I watched as a revolving door sent many of the same children to be disciplined by the office. Often they would return so soon, I wondered if they had been seen by any school administrator.

The behavior of our school children is shaped by encouraging them to take responsibility for their actions and through external discipline. To get a response from students, we have to stop and listen to them. It is easy, I suppose, to fall into the routine of yelling. As a single parent, I know this well. Unfortunately, I often observed this practice by staff at the school. We need to be reminded that our children bring many problems to school, sometimes from home, and sometimes from just growing up.

My fifth grade experience will be with me for a long time to come, Next year, we will be going to the sixth grade and King Middle School. I understand a review of district policy is underway. This fall, I will be certain to hear about our "new school policies" and pledges to start over. It will make me think of these fifth-graders, who cannot.

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