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In Oakland, Struggling For Years To Learn English

Deyri Rabadan is a senior at Coliseum College Prep Academy in Oakland. She struggled with the state's high school exit exam, but plans to go to college this fall.
LA Johnson/NPR
Deyri Rabadan is a senior at Coliseum College Prep Academy in Oakland. She struggled with the state's high school exit exam, but plans to go to college this fall.

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When she was a toddler, Deyri Rabadan moved from Cuernavaca, Mexico, to Oakland, Calif., with her parents. She's been a California public school student since kindergarten. Now she's 17 years old and a senior at Coliseum College Prep Academy in Oakland.

She's come a long way, but Rabadan, a native Spanish-speaker, says there's still one thing that embarrasses her: "I feel like if I speak up in class or I try to participate in class, other students are going to be like, 'What is she talking about?' You know?"

Rabadan isn't alone in feeling that way. Four out of five high school students learning English in California have been in school in the state for longer than six years and still aren't fluent. They're what people in education call "long-term English learners."

Not surprisingly, these students have a higher dropout rate than the California average. English language learners, who are mostly Latino and make up more than a fifth of California's public school students, have a graduation rate of 65 percent. That's compared to the state's 80 percent overall.

"I have thought of dropping out before," says Rabadan. "That is because I don't really know my English really well."

Only a few weeks before graduation, she still hasn't gotten an advanced score on the state English proficiency test. She's taken it each year since she started school.

It's one of two milestones Rabadan's struggled with. The other is the high school exit exam, which students must pass to graduate.

"It makes me really mad. Angry ... sad," says Rabadan. "Honestly, I feel stupid, because I'm taking the same test over and over and over, and it's something that I can pass." She says she gets stuck on reading comprehension and writing. "It's just that I don't use a strong vocabulary."

Most English learners in the state don't get any instruction in their home language. English learners are supposed to get 30 minutes of specialized English development each day, but many don't, according to the state's own reports. A group of parents and students sued the state over the inadequate provision of English services, and a judge found in their favor last year.

Nina Portugal, who teaches English Language Development for long-term English learners at Castlemont High School in Oakland, says misperceptions contribute to the high dropout rate among these students.

"You have students who for years haven't been successful in school and don't really know why," she says. "People just assume, 'Oh, they're just quiet, they don't care, they're just kind of lazy.' When you actually sit them down and work with them, it's not that. They've been embarrassed. They've been silenced."

Two years ago, California passed a law requiring the state to track long-term English learners in every school, to improve their chances of graduating.

Oakland Unified is one of several districts around the state that's started classes specifically designed to help these students. They're also trying to reach kids at an earlier age, to teach them literacy skills so they won't become long-term English learners in the first place.

For Deyri Rabadan, the news is good. On her seventh try, she passed California's high school exit exam, and she plans to go to college in the fall.

For more from KQED on long-term English learners,go here.

Copyright 2015 KQED

Zaidee Stavely