SAN DIEGO.- Each year, Latin American students immigrate to the United States and face the daunting reality of learning in a system completely different than their own through a language foreign to them.
That's why a pilot program was launched in 2008 with the goal of helping them to succeed.
It's called Project SOL (Secondary Online Learning) and was created by UCLA in coordination with the leading public high school system in Mexico, the Colegio de Bachilleres (Cobach).
The project relies on the curriculum used in Mexico, specifically mathematics and science, to teach these students in Spanish through the Internet.
Currently, four high schools in California offer classes through the project, Sylmar and Franklin in Los Angeles, Brawley Union in the Imperial Valley and Chula Vista in San Diego County.
The idea is to have the students continue to learn core subjects in their language so they don't fall behind during a crucial stage in their educational lives, a stage that has a big impact on their future life.
"The program began to help young people who began their high school studies in another system," said Patricia Gándara, the UCLA researcher who leads the project.
"The project offers rigorous courses whose goal is to prepare students to go on to college," said the professor in a phone interview.
The project began with a $1.2 million budget. If the results were good, the idea was to roll out this type of online instruction across the United States.
The bad news is that the funding is running out and the project is in its final year at the four high schools, although Gándara does not rule out that it that they may be able to continue it.
The initial funding was for a three-year pilot program but its leaders were able to stretch it to four.
They have tried to track all the students who have participated in these courses and are in the process of analyzing the project's effectiveness in helping them to attend college. She said that preliminary findings have been good.
At the end of the academic year, the schools that want to continue to offer these classes will have to fund them on their own.
"Fortunately, it's not an expensive program nor is it difficult to offer online learning," Gándara said. "They can do it without UCLA."
The educators at Chula Vista High are upbeat about the project's impact.
Ninth-grader Juliana Hernández moved to San Diego County from Honduras and faced the immediate barrier of learning in another language.
Through Project SOL, she was able to take her algebra class in Spanish, allowing her to keep up while learning English.
"I think I have learned more," she said. "When I arrived I had to adapt to so many changes in school. But this program has helped. It's so much easier in Spanish."
For his part, John De Jesús, a teacher at the district for 16 years, underscored the importance of allowing students the opportunity to learn math concepts in their own language.
"They can understand them so much easier," the teacher said.
De Jesús teaches algebra using this approach to groups of 30 students twice a week in a computer lab.
When they arrive to class, the students connect through the Internet and do algebra exercises in Spanish developed by the high school system in Mexico.
The high school's principal, Steve Lizárraga, said that most of the 76 students who have taken this class have done well enough to advance to the next one, in geometry.
The project's academic adviser at the school, Margarita Padilla, has noticed that since these classes began, more students are expressing an interest in careers related to math, such as engineering or computer science.
"I believe that it does meet the goal of helping more students go to college," she said. "If they see that they can learn, that motivates them. It's easier for them to apply to college."
The analysis of the four-year pilot program will be released after the academic year ends.
One recommendation that's being studied, Gándara said, is to align the curriculum for certain core high school subjects in the United States and Mexico.
Another is to call for more bilingual teachers to work in California classrooms, where the number of students learning English is not projected to drop anytime soon.
On Thursday, the California Association of Bilingual Educators will honor the eight professionals involved in Project SOL at its annual conference in Sacramento.
They will receive the Award for Valor for their role in educating a population crucial to the state's and country's future.