A 5th-grade class in Corbett Elementary school in Reno, Nevada on November 1, 2019 - photo: Joe McCarthy/the Ally

When Dalila Estrada was 16, she moved with her family from Durango, Mexico to Truckee, California and enrolled as a junior at Truckee High School. She did not speak much English. 

Dalila Estrada

“My first week I cried every day before and after school, thinking that school was not for me,” she told the Washoe County School District board at last week’s trustees meeting.

A year after Dalila’s family landed in Truckee, they moved to Reno. She enrolled at Hug High School—again as a junior. Her English was deemed insufficient for 12th grade. 

When she read her schedule and learned that she’d been placed in the advanced English class, she figured it was a mistake. But her teacher, Dawn Adams (now Assistant Principal at RISE, WCSD’s school for adult education) saw things differently. As Dalila recounted the conversation in a recent phone interview, Ms. Adams told her, “I hear you speaking Spanish. I hear that you’ve been educated. I hear how fluent you are in the academic language that you’re using to describe situations. And that’s going to help you in the English learning process.”

For the next two years, Dalila took dedicated English classes, where non-native speakers work through the complexities of grammar, pronunciation, and syntax—and often rely on their teachers to help them navigate the adjustment to a new life in a new country. In the education world they’re called “EL classes,” and the students who take them are called ELs—“English learners.”

In Nevada, the graduation rate for ELs is 42.6%. (For non-ELs, it’s 76.6%.) Dalila was among the graduates. As she prepared to enter adulthood, unsure of her options, Ms. Adams helped her look to the future.

“I can tell you, Dawn has been my mentor since high school,” Dalila said. “She was the one to apply for me to go to college. I had no idea what to do, where I was doing. And she was like, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna go to college.’”

“And so I did,” Dalila said. “And I can tell you that relationships with those teachers and with those people have made my career.” She earned a degree in secondary education, with an endorsement in EL and a minor in teaching English as a second language. In 2018, she completed a masters degree in equity and diversity in education. Today, Dalila teaches English at Nevada State High School, a charter school in Reno.

EL classes on the chopping block

The night Dalila addressed the school board, on Feb. 11, one of the agenda items was a vote on the future of EL education. During a discussion that spanned at least two hours of the seven-hour meeting, Janeen Kelly, Director of English Language Development for the district, presented a detailed plan that would reassign up to 57 of the district’s 100 EL teachers over the next three school years. The plan would add 38 “ELD site facilitators”—language development experts who coach and test students in their mainstream classrooms. There would also be 6 new teachers for “newcomers,” a designation of EL student. This would make for a net reduction of 13 EL teacher positions.

It’s important to note here that students with limited English enter the school system at every level—elementary, middle, and high school. When they start typically makes a big difference in how likely they are to become fluent in English. Local educators generally agree that ELs who start in elementary school tend to become fluent, and those who enter the system in high school often do not.

For this reason, what most concerns Dalila is the 18 EL positions that could be cut at the high school level. She calls English “a survival skill,” and immigrants in their late teens who enter the workforce without fluency have few career options.

“What you learn in your English classes pretty much determines what is the income of the person for the rest of your life,” Dalila said. “I know that Washoe County is trying to propose different ideas, but they are really not considering the damage that they could do to these students.”

Reactions from the community

After Janine Kelly’s presentation, in which she recommended the staff cuts, Dalila stood at the podium, briefly relayed her story, and urged the trustees to keep the EL classes.

She wrapped up her allotted three minutes with this statement: “Ten years have passed, and I am convinced that the EL instruction I had was the most important foundation that I could ever have in my career. In fact, that’s where my passion started for education. Today, I can tell you that this is the way that we can help more immigrants than any other way. My ESL teacher was the person to go to anytime that I had a question … even about immigration. She was the person to answer many questions for other classes. And she was the person that sat down with me to repeat, at least 20 times, the same word.”

Dalila mentioned that she was speaking on behalf of hundreds of immigrant families. “[They] can’t be here today themselves to advocate,” she said. “I can tell you that it’s not because they don’t care about the matter. It’s because in our culture, it’s very hard to stand out. Because it can be very intimidating. Actually, a lot of them were here today, but it’s late …” It was around 10 p.m., six hours into the meeting.

A few others took the podium to testify in favor of keeping the EL positions. Among them were Sparks High School EL teacher Melanie Reeves, Wooster High School EL teacher Nancy Galt, and Jocelyn Esquivel, a 2016 Wooster graduate who is now a student at Truckee Meadows Community College. The board also received 198 pages of email comments—many from teachers, some written by family members in Spanish, some handwritten on lined paper by students, many imploring the district to reconsider the cuts. A group of educators sent a letter—unsigned, as some feared retaliation—expressing their concern about replacing EL teachers with site facilitators.

Toward the end of the trustees meeting, Jeff Church spoke. He’s the retired Reno Police Sergeant who took up his school board post in January.

“I sat here, for the most part just listened, because my number-one inclination is to always defer to the expertise of the staff and superintendent, which I think is appropriate,” Church said. “But then we got these overwhelming emails, and the very passionate speakers that are just incredible. So I think we definitely need to revisit this in its entirety.” 

Speaking in Spanish, Church acknowledged to students that he understands that it’s difficult to learn to speak a new language. “Y quiero que ustedes saben que estoy aquí para escuchar y para ayudar,” he added. Translation: “And I want you to know that I am here to listen and to learn.” (While many of the district’s EL students speak other languages—the next most frequent are Tagalog, Filipino, Vietnamese, Bengali, and Marshallese—the majority are Spanish speakers.)

The board voted unanimously to postpone the vote and revisit the discussion in a future meeting.

Getting the word out

Dalila isn’t breathing a sigh of relief just yet. “This is not the first time that they’ve had a proposal like this one,” she said. And when the school board next raises the discussion, she’d like to see a couple of things done differently.

“It’s time for us to actually get organized and get it out in the community,” she said. While the district has 9,270 EL students, a great majority of the families that would be directly affected by the cuts did not attend the meeting. Dalila surmised that most did not know about it. (Here’s the school board’s meeting calendar.)

“When these types of topics are on the table, you should have people translating,” she added.

Dalila feels fortunate to have experienced EL education from both sides—as a student and a teacher. She’s made it her mission to shed light on just how much of a lifeline EL classes can be. “I can tell you that … the work that an EL teacher does has no comparison with other teachers,” she said. “That person is the one that you can go for anything, even immigration questions. Other than that, families don’t have any other resources. So that’s a person that really gets attached to those families. And from the teacher point of view, I can tell you that the work that we do to help those kids is above and beyond, because we know that as teachers, if we don’t help them, the future is gonna look a lot different than what we want for them.”

CORRECTION: We initially reported that 57 EL teachers would be cut under WCSD’s three-year plan. In actuality, many of them would be reassigned to related positions. This article was updated on Feb. 23 to remedy the inaccuracy. The Sierra Nevada Ally regrets the error.

Kris Vagner is culture and features editor at the Sierra Nevada Ally and editor of Double Scoop, Arts in Nevada. Support her work.