Some pupils beat test odds even though English is not their native language

UNION CITY, CALIF. — UNION CITY, Calif. -- Don't tell the children in Darlene Mayhew's class that they and other fourth graders in Calfornia public schools are among the worst readers in the country.

"That isn't true. Fourth graders like to read," insisted 9-year-old Martha Prempeh.


"Tell them to come over here and I'll read to them," Jeremy Castillo, 9, replied when told of California's poor showing in a national reading test.

Here, at Pioneer Elementary School, Mrs. Mayhew's students have put down their "novels" -- books like "The Football Wars" and "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales" -- to comment on the latest bit of bad news dogging the California school system:


Of students tested in 43 states and localities, California fourth graders read at the lowest level of proficiency, just ahead of Mississippi, Guam and the District of Columbia.

Although the Pioneer fourth graders were not among the sample of students who participated in the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, they reflect the changing face of California's student enrollment: an increasingly immigrant population.

And yet the children perform well above average on the state's own achievement tests. And nearly one-third of Pioneer's 897 children are limited English speakers -- more than the state average of 22 percent.

When the state made national headlines for its poor readers, education officials attributed the ranking in part to the state's large percentage of students with limited English skills. But Pioneer and its students, who live in a middle-class suburb north of San Jose, show that California schools can and do work despite the state's dismal fiscal picture.

What's the secret? Big schools with large enrollments, which make for "an economy of scale," efficient management, supportive and active parents and a good relationship with the ++ district's teachers and other unions, says Guy Emanuele, the superintendent of the New Haven Unified School District since 1976.

New Haven, in which Pioneer is located, spends less per pupil than the statewide average of $4,419. But school buses still run here and the six elementary schools each have a librarian (although there is only one nurse for those students).

"There's a lot of things we would be doing and could be doing if we had the funds," said Mr. Emanuele.

To maintain and repair its buildings, the school district had to rely on the passage of a $55 million bond bill. It took two elections before the community mustered the two-thirds vote needed to approve the measure. Such is the legacy of Proposition 13, the controversial tax-cutting initiative passed in 1978, and other measures that have undercut a local subdivision's ability to raise money.


Now, Mr. Emanuele and others are worried about Proposition 174, the so-called voucher initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot. The initiative would require the state to give parents a voucher worth about $2,600 to be used at most any private or public school of their choice.

"You're going to end up drawing out of the system white middle-class kids or the middle-class minority. Urban schools are going to be left devastated, and those kids who need the help the most are going to be isolated more than ever," said Mr. Emanuele.