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ENGLISH LEARNERS in Compton Unified School District are making headlines — and writing informative articles to go with them. Through enrollment in a summer and after-school journalism program, they are becoming English-proficient more quickly, having fun and thrilled to be earning bylines.

“We have a lot of students who are very eager to learn the English language, and it’s up to us to help them get there,” says Maria Cardona De Garza, an EL specialist for the district and Compton Education Association member. “Language takes time to develop. The journalism class is a way to move away from the traditional remedial approach to support students in their learning.”

“Language takes time to develop. The journalism class is a way to move away from the traditional remedial approach to support students in their learning.”-Maria Cardona De Garza

De Garza teamed up with Jennifer Graziano, senior director of EL students for the district, to implement an after-school journalism program in 2015, based on curriculum developed by Loyola Marymount University. What began as a pilot program at five campuses expanded to 14 district schools and also a summer program. It received a Golden Bell Award from the California School Board Association in 2019.

The program is aligned to ELA Common Core Standards and designed for youngsters in grades 3-5who are considered at risk of becoming long-term English Learners. Students who have been in American schools for at least six years but have not become fluent in English and have not advanced in two years on English language proficiency tests are considered long-term English learners in California.

Using journalism to prevent students from becoming long-term ELs is an unconventional approach that is showing success, says De Garza, who trains cadres of teachers to use the program throughout the district.

“We have followed students who participated to see how they were performing on assessments, including the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC). Students who participated in the after-school journalism program were moving forward in their scores and were always higher the following year.”

Depending upon the school site, these cub reporters may have their work showcased in a printed newsletter, an online newsletter or a podcast, with staff and students at their campus as the intended audience. Naturally, most students choose to write about things happening at their school and often interview staff members.

Innov De Garza Compton Fire Department interview with students

Students from Clinton Elementary School interview members of the Compton Fire Department.

With the help of their teacher, students must research topics, formulate well-developed questions and write down interviewees’ responses. When they begin writing articles, students are encouraged to use a “hook” in the headline to grab readers’ attention, and edit their work. They also take photos and write captions. They may work individually or in groups.

The program is a way to bring EL students, who may be on the quiet side and hesitant to ask questions, out of their shell and instill confidence. It strengthens both listening and speaking skills. Students are taught how to project confidence in their body language, make eye contact, speak clearly and ask follow-up questions if necessary.

Those who participated in the program at Bunche Elementary School before the pandemic, featured in a school newsletter, had good things to say. Among them:

“I loved coming to the program because I learned about newspapers and how to write and interview,” says Andrew Sanchez.

“I enjoyed the program because I got to write neater and learn many things,” says Laney Martinez. “I love learning about reading, writing and how people make newspapers.”

De Garza is a veteran journalist, with a degree in journalism and previous experience at a daily newspaper in her native country, Spain. She learned English at middle school in Spain and honed it as a17-year-old exchange student in the United States. Recruited to work as a bilingual teacher in Compton in 1999, she has remained with the district ever since, first as a classroom teacher and now as a teacher on special assignment.

“My philosophy is that all students have the ability to learn and we cannot fail them,” she says. “They may take more time and work, but we must do whatever it takes to support them. And a fun, unique and creative way to help them succeed is through journalism.”

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