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Sunday, January 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wilber: learning the language

Seattle Times staff reporter

Wilber Romero remembers the seventh-grade WASL as pages and pages of English words he couldn't read.

He'd arrived in the United States from Mexico about a year before, just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He still knew little English. He felt bad about the test. Bad about school in general. Other students would start writing, and he had no idea what to do.

"It was horrible, Miss," he says.

His English has improved a lot since then. Last year, he had the second-highest score on an English-language test among immigrant students at Federal Way High. Still, he's among thousands of sophomores who will struggle with the WASL in large part because it's in English. Last year, less than a third of the students in English-language programs in Washington passed the 10th-grade reading WASL.

Wilber's also taking geometry, history and biology — although he's at risk of failing history and biology. He talks about dropping out, especially if he fails the WASL.

He lives with his mother, father and two younger siblings in an apartment near Federal Way High. They're from the small town of Copala in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and Wilber, 15, misses it — the morning drink with canela (cinnamon), the nearby woods where he played with friends, the dancing in the streets on holidays. He's never without the white, plastic rosary he wears over his shirt.

His father installs drywall for a living, and Wilber says that job doesn't always pay enough to cover the bills. One reason he's tempted to quit school is to help out.

His father tells him to continue, so he can get a good job — a better job. But Wilber's not sure.

Every day, he says, he tells himself to work harder, do his homework, go to the after-school tutoring program. But when the bell rings, he finds himself headed home instead, where he watches TV and visits friends.

"I just say it, but I don't do it," he says.

Why?

"I want to know that."

The WASL, he says, is good and bad.

"We're the first class to take it; it sucks," he says. On the other hand, "I know if they're going to make us take the WASL, we're going to do better in school."

He thinks about becoming an auto mechanic because he'd always have steady work. Not a teacher. He'd get mad at students who don't pay attention, he says.

David Vinson, his language-arts teacher, says he sees Wilber on the cusp of deciding whether to stay in school or leave. If Wilber stays, Vinson is confident he can pass his classes and the WASL.

He looks over at Wilber, who is sitting sideways in his chair, resting his back against the wall as he reads the 16 pages in "Of Mice and Men" he was supposed to finish for homework.

"Keep reading, Wilber," Vinson says. "Are you taking notes?"

"Yeah," Wilber replies, and waves a clump of Post-its.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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