Bilingual student gets A’s and B’s, but still has problems with English

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Senn High School senior Eliza Cajamarca could be a poster child for bilingual education.

In the three years since she and her family emigrated here from Ecuador, Eliza has moved smartly through bilingual education classes, earning mostly As and Bs along the way, and now is even serving as a mentor to freshmen. On Saturdays, she studies English at Truman College.

Yet, Eliza, a soft-spoken 18-year-old, is acutely aware of a major limitation. Although she transitioned out of bilingual education this year, she’s not yet fluent in English, and she fears it will limit her opportunities for the future.

“I don’t know how I passed my classes,” she says cautiously in English.

She has applied to the U.S. Army and Navy where she plans to study computer engineering while earning money for college. But her score on a math and reading screening test for the Navy was six points short of the cutoff. Eliza says she plans to take the exam again. She plans to concentrate on learning new vocabulary words—her Achilles’ heel in tests, she says.

But this hurdle is one of many Eliza’s family have negotiated while trying to make a new life in America.

Eliza arrived in Chicago in 1998 with her mother, Maria, two older sisters and her brother, Jose Luis, 16, who is now a 10th-grader at Senn. Her father, Marcelo, preceded the family by more than a decade and now works in a downtown hotel kitchen.

Neither of Eliza’s parents finished high school in their hometown of Cuenca, and neither of them has learned to speak English.

Getting a good education and learning English well is necessary for survival in the U.S., says Maria. “We can’t have a conversation with someone from this country,” she says in Spanish. “You’re marginalized completely.”

Eliza remembers feeling like an outsider. In her first year, she and Jose Luis often came home crying after another day of feeling lost at school. “Sometimes, I just cry because it’s frustrating,” she says.

“You know a lot of things, but you can’t express them.”

Eliza’s frustration peaked on standardized tests. Last spring, she scored a 15 on the ACT, slightly below citywide averages. She did better on math and science, but again, was hurt by the reading portion. Next spring, Eliza will be required to take the test again as part of the state-mandated Prairie State Exam.

To improve her English skills, Eliza has taken advantage of tutoring offered at Senn. Teachers have been helpful when she sought them out, she says. But bilingual students need extra attention, and teachers could be more proactive, she suggests.

Still, some classmates have more trouble than others in learning English, Eliza says. For them, she says, “I think you need more than three or four years” of bilingual classes.

But her brother, Jose Luis, who is considered the best English-speaker in the family, disagrees. Bilingual programs should pressure students to learn English sooner, he says. Without it, he says, some students remain in their linguistic comfort zone. “They have their friends who speak Spanish, teachers speak Spanish. That’s the problem there.”

The downside of learning English well, Jose Luis admits, is the stunting of his Spanish skills. “I haven’t learned any new words since I arrived,” he says, then wonders aloud if he would be able to keep up with his cousins back in Ecuador. He is planning to take a Spanish class at Senn next year to fulfill his language requirement.

The Cajamarcas envision their children bridging the language gap—something they have been unable to do. “I wished everyone [in the neighborhood] spoke Spanish,” Maria concedes. “But for my kids, they have to face reality and speak English well.”