By Teachers, For Teachers
May 29--When Jonathan Garcia moved to the United States from Mexico City two years ago, the language barrier was nearly intolerable.
"When you come here and you don't know English, it's so hard," he said. "I used to cry sometimes because I couldn't understand anybody."
Now a senior at River Valley High School, the 19-year-old smiled proudly last week as he was recognized as being no longer an English language learner but fluent English proficient. Friends, family members and educators gathered at the school library to cheer on Garcia and 31 of his peers as they received medals and certificates of their reclassification at the annual ceremony.
"It's just amazing how someone coming, not knowing any English at all, could get up just like that. He worked hard," said Garcia's stepmother, Rosa Young. "His confidence improved; he has a better outlook. And at least he knows he can be the same as the other kids."
Every year, hundreds of students walk through the doors of Yuba-Sutter schools not knowing English. Some are recent immigrants and others live in families who at home only speak in their native tongues such as Punjabi, Spanish and Hmong.
Most are usually placed into English language development classes, commoly called ELD, where teachers focus particular attention on improving English reading, writing and speaking skills. Students must prove proficiency to advance through the classes and finally achieve reclassification.
When they do, for many it's as significant an accomplishment as high school graduation, said ELD coordinator Yesenia Leon.
"We have so many kids waiting for this moment," she said. "We changed part of their American dream, to be a mainstream student."
Senior Gurnam Sunny said his parents moved to the United States from India three years ago in hopes of giving their children a better life and educational opportunities.
"My dad has always told me you can be anything you want to be," said Sunny, 18.
He finished the ELD program in two years and will start at Sacramento State this fall, pursuing a bachelor's degree in biochemistry as he works toward an eventual pharmacy doctorate.
"The English language is still a challenge to me, but I will continue to work hard," Sunny told his peers at the ceremony. "I know my pathway will be full of challenges, but I will get there one day."
To reclassify as "fluent English proficient" instead of an English learner, a student must score high on the state standards and English language development tests, get a C or better in English language arts and pass the English portion of the California High School Exit exam.
At River Valley, 130 students -- about 10 percent of the student population -- are in ELD. Of those, about 28 percent have been in the United States for at least six years, compared to a state average of 52 percent. The majority of them reclassify before graduation.
Senior Jesse Villegas, 17, is now proud to be in that group. Born in Gridley and raised in a Spanish-speaking home, he spent much of high school in ELD, although he never understood why.
"I always thought it was for people who came from a different country," he said. "But I think I was meant to be in ELD. It taught me a lot more than English."
Sophomore Parminder Dayal, 16, figured he was doomed to spend all of high school in ELD, after moving to the United States from Rajasthan, India, in 2005.
"When I came, I didn't know anything so I just gave up," he said. "It took me seven years to get out."
Last year, a friend's reclassification gave him the spark he desperately needed.
"When I tried, I got this in less than six months," he said. "I feel proud. I never thought this would happen."
For many years, Christopher Zamora moved back and forth between the United States and Mexico, and he remembers the language barrier was a major struggle in class and around his friends.
"It's frustrating. You want to express your feelings and you can't," said Zamora, 16. "You feel like you are kicked out of the social life."
Now a junior, Zamora said he threw himself into his studies to change his situation as quickly as possible.
His classmate Ahmad Abdul knows the feeling.
He was born in Afghanistan and spent most of his life in Russia before immigrating to the United States when he was 16. He was fluent in Russian, Farsi and Urdu but that was of little use in his United States high school classes.
"I couldn't say one word," Abdul said.
In ELD, he and his teachers used improv to communicate, relying on hand motions and pictures to try to understand one another. He grew more proficient every day, and he grinned at the ceremony as he received his medal of reclassification two years after he started.
"I feel a little different than when I first came," he said. "I don't know how to thank my teachers."
CONTACT Ashley Gebb at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4783. Find her on Facebook at /ADagebb or on Twitter at @ADagebb.