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LONG BEACH - In the Long Beach Unified School District, where nearly a quarter of all students are learning English as a second language, quality programs are critical for student success, said Pamela Seki, the district's director of curriculum for English learners.

"I liken it to getting on the freeway on-ramp," Seki said. "Our students are learning at a face pace, and English learners have to learn all of the regular content, plus they're working to become proficient. It can be a tremendous struggle."

Of 19,000 students in Long Beach Unified, 22 percent are classified as English learners. Five years ago, the district toughened its criteria for reclassifying English learners after data showed that reclassified students were struggling once they left the program, Seki said.

The district now requires that students who test to be reclassified as fluent score slightly higher than the state minimum on standardized English tests. Long Beach Unified teachers also must give a comprehensive assessment of whether a student is ready to be reclassified.

Depending on the age group, students are analyzed based on benchmark test scores and proficiency in math, English, history and science.

As a result of the higher criteria, the LBUSD has typically lagged behind state and county averages for the percentage of students being reclassified as fluent each year.

Seki, however, said test results show that the district's more rigorous program benefits students in the long run. She said 90 percent of reclassified students scored at the proficient or advanced level on state English tests this year.

The district also has managed to improve its reclassification rate.

For the 2011-2012 school year, 13 percent of English learners were reclassified as fluent, higher than the state average of 11 percent.

Seki said the higher reclassification rate is a reflection of an overall improvement for English learners. On the state's 2012 Academic Performance Index, English learners showed a 37-point gain for a score of 709. The state sets an overall goal of 800 for schools and districts. Statewide, English learners showed a 10-point gain for a score of 716.

Seki said students should be able to master basic skills before they move on.

"We feel it is really important that students build a good foundation," she said. "We set what we think is a fair criteria based on what English learners need to be successful, and we're seeing that our students who are reclassified are doing really well."

kelly.puente@presstelegram.com

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