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Originally published Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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More money, time urged for foreign students on WASL

Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson wants to provide an additional $5.3 million in programs for students who are learning...

Seattle Times education reporter

Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson wants to provide an additional $5.3 million in programs for students who are learning English, much of it aimed at high-school students who need to pass reading and writing on the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) to earn a diploma.

Such students may need an extra year or two in school, Bergeson said in an interview Wednesday, but she thinks that's better than graduating without those skills.

The system, she said, "is not going to abandon these children."

Bergeson said the latest figures show that roughly 960 seniors in English-language or bilingual programs have enough credits to be on track to graduate in June, but may fall short because they haven't passed reading and writing on the WASL. Another 650 have passed those parts of the exam.

Those numbers don't count students who have dropped out, or are behind in credits.

Specifically, Bergson plans to propose:

• a $1.25 million pilot project at 10 high schools where students can work on English literacy and job skills at the same time, similar to a community-college program for adults;

• startup grants totaling $1 million for night classes or other innovative ways for high schools to help students work, and finish school;

• $713,000 to help school districts offer online courses in Spanish, so students can keep up their academic skills while learning English;

• $2.3 million to hire 25 coaches who will train teachers in how best to assist students learning English.

Bergeson's staff recently held a number of meetings to discuss the issues surrounding immigrant students who arrive in Washington just a few years before graduation. Research indicates that's not enough time for them to master the kind of "academic" English they need to pass the 10th-grade WASL.

Starting in June, passing the reading and writing sections of the WASL is one of the requirements to graduate. (Students who fail the math section also must take and pass additional math classes.)

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Many educators have questioned whether it's fair to deny diplomas to students who are working hard and doing well in all their classes, but may fail to graduate only because they need more time to master English.

In the past, they say, many immigrant students have been able to continue studying English in community college, and then transfer to universities. Without a diploma, however, they worry those options won't be available.

They're looking for ways to help students succeed, and to keep them from getting discouraged.

Bergeson, however, strongly opposes some of the possibilities raised.

She's against delaying the WASL graduation requirement for several more years, as a group of superintendents from the Yakima Valley have proposed.

Bergeson also doesn't favor allowing immigrant students to graduate without passing reading and writing on the 10th-grade WASL, which is an option for some special-education students. It's also the policy in other states, such as Minnesota, where students who are learning English don't have to pass the state exit exam if they've been in the country for less than three years before graduation.

Students learning English don't lack the capability of reading at a 10th-grade level, Bergeson said, they just need more time.

Under state law, she points out that students can continue working on their diplomas until they're 21 years old — and schools will continue to receive funding for them.

"We do have the resources to help these kids," she said.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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