LOS ANGELES – Roberto Bautista was lost when he entered kindergarten speaking only Spanish.
"I said, 'What are they saying?' I just pretend I understand," said the 9-year-old Los Angeles fifth grader. "My best friend knew how to speak English. He helped me."
Roberto's experience is typical for Spanish-speakers entering California schools. They usually get assigned to a program where the teacher must speak English almost exclusively even though kids don't understand.
Roberto has since moved on to a special bilingual program that teaches him in both Spanish and English, but the vast majority of pupils stay in an English-only program, often falling behind in academics as they learn the language then struggle to catch up. Many don't.
California has the largest Hispanic student population in the nation but ranks at the bottom for Hispanic reading and math achievement. Only 11 percent of the state's 1.6 million English learners — the vast majority of them Spanish speakers — reached proficiency levels in English in the last school year. About a third drop out of school.
Experts say the numbers point to the need for a statewide overhaul of how schools teach kids English.
"Miseducate this group and the whole state is in trouble," said Leo Gomez, professor of bilingual education at the University of Texas-Pan American.
Educators are now closely observing the Los Angeles Unified School District after the U.S. Department of Education recently criticized its 200,000-pupil English learning program, saying it violated students' civil rights by failing to provide an equal education to non-native speakers.
Under federal monitoring, LAUSD is overhauling its English learner program, the largest in the country. The revamped program, which is scheduled to be presented to the school board in March and begin next school year, could provide a model for other lagging districts.
Studies have long pointed out numerous deficiencies in the state system, which starts with a survey sent to parents asking what languages are spoken at home. Children from multilingual homes are then tested for English proficiency.
Low scorers are placed into English language classes until they're proficient and moved into regular classes.
California's teaching method, however, differs from that used in all but two other states. It uses "structured English immersion," where nearly all classroom instruction is in English, and learning English is prioritized over other academics.
The method, which holds that students master English faster, was adopted after 1998's Proposition 227 restricted the use of bilingual education. Immersion is also used in Arizona and Massachusetts.
All other states, however, use bilingual classroom models. Teachers give academic lessons in the students' native language while students receive separate English instruction until they reach fluency to switch into a regular classroom.
The idea is that continuing their academics in their native language allows them to be current when they're put into regular classes.
Opponents of immersion say children fall behind in their academic subjects while they learn English and never fully catch up.
"By the time, they're in middle school, they're English proficient but academically deprived," Gomez said.
Others say kids learn English either way. It's the quality of the program that matters most, said a 2009 study by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Latino affairs think tank that is now part of the University of Southern California.
The study found that once children master English and move into regular classrooms they perform at or above the same level as native English speakers, but too many children simply languish in English learner limbo.
In the study of LAUSD middle schoolers, researchers found 30 percent of students learning English had not gained language proficiency by 8th grade, although most had been in the English learning program since kindergarten. Of those who remained in English classes in high school, almost half dropped out and only 6 percent passed the state high school exit exam.
The state auditor found in a 2005 report that districts have a financial incentive not to move students out of English learning program — an average $448 annually per English learner in extra state and federal funding.
Deborah Sigman, state deputy superintendent of education, disputed that contention, saying districts are simply being cautious about not pushing through students prematurely.
Some experts note that although 80 percent of Spanish-speaking children are born in the United States, many are at a disadvantage because the majority comes from immigrant communities that are low income and provide limited exposure to English. Parents commonly have not graduated high school.
"These kids are really growing up in linguistically isolated areas," said Patricia Gandara, education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "They're having an enclave experience, not a mainstream experience."
She called for more training for teachers who have to cope with multiple levels of English proficiency in a classroom and little know-how to do that. "Teachers don't feel prepared," she said.
Other studies contend that too many kids are identified as English learners to begin with. A September study by Latino policy researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that even though children might speak English, the language skills test is set up to fail them.
The study noted in 2009-10, 88 percent of kindergarteners were classified as English learners based on a two-hour test in which four and five-year-olds who have just entered school must read and write words like "apple," which would be difficult for native English speaking children who have not had preschool.
They cannot get out of English learner status until third grade at the earliest. By then, they are already behind.
State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, who is leading legislative efforts to address English learning program deficiencies, said he'd like parents informed that the survey is used for English-learner classification, what that means to a child's education, and more guidelines about answering.
A grandparent living in the house who speaks only Spanish shouldn't necessarily trigger an English test for the grandchild, said Padilla, the author of a recent law that moves the proficiency test from the fall to the spring so students will have the benefit of a school year of instruction behind them.
Los Angeles elementary teacher Io McNaughton, who taught immersion English in an East Los Angeles school and now teaches in a special program that aims at proficiency in Spanish and English, said more emphasis needs to be placed on middle and high school English learners, where prospects of moving into regular classes dim considerably.
Kids in immersion classes do learn English quickly, she said, but she noted that their achievement plateaus. "You'd be teaching English and saying this is working, it's great, but as you progressed through the grades, the achievement in reading and writing really dropped off," she said.
LAUSD officials say they're examining all aspects of their English learning program, from extensive teacher training to how English learners are identified to better monitoring of English learners after they're placed in regular classes. Particular attention is being placed on secondary schools, which federal officials underscored as deficient.
Proficiency testing will also be scrutinized, said Ana Estevez-Andressian, LAUSD's English learner compliance coordinator.
State Sen. Padilla, who was an English learner himself, said he's hoping meaningful reforms that can be replicated will come out of the effort. More than 25 percent of California's students are English learners, and that number comprises a third of English learners nationwide.
"We're not going to make statewide improvement if we don't hone in on English learners," Padilla said. "When you're looking at almost a third of all students, it's a crisis."