Equity & Diversity

Feds Put Spotlight on Needs of Black ELLs

By Corey Mitchell — October 19, 2015 3 min read
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The White House and the U.S. Department of Education are working together to raise awareness of the needs of a growing, yet often-overlooked subgroup of students: English-language learners who are black.

The United States is now home to the largest number of foreign-born black people in its history, and many are students enrolled in the nation’s public schools, a Pew Research Center report released in April indicates.

Spanish, Haitian Creole, and French are the most common languages spoken at home by the 130,000-plus black English-learners, according to a fact sheet from the Education Department’s office of English-language acquisition and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

The fact sheet is the first in a series of tools and guides designed to support educators and communities who work with black ELL students and their families from around the globe.

Dearth of Data

The department is “working to raise awareness of their needs both inside and outside the classroom,” said Libia Gil, head of the federal office of English-language acquisition.

In the coming months, the Education Department will convene a series of forums in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia to gather community input, Gil said.

Florida and New York have the highest concentration of black ELLs; between 11 and 20 percent of each state’s English-learners are black, data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey indicates.

But even in these states, there is a dearth of data or research on the educational outcomes for black ELLs.

Officials in Miami-Dade and New York City, the largest districts in their respective states, did not immediately have data available tracking performance of black ELLs.

Florida does not track the students as a subgroup and has no immediate plans to do so, said Chane Eplin, who oversees the state’s ELL programs.

A 2012 analysis from the Migration Policy Institute and Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development found that former black ELLs in Texas were more likely to graduate from high school than their black peers who are native English speakers. The study tracked students who entered the first grade in 1995 and entered the senior year of high school in 2006.

But those black ELL students represented only about 1 percent of Texas’ English-learners.

The report from the White House and the Education Department reveals a rich diversity among the nation’s black English-learners.

More than a third of foreign-born black English-learners hail from twocountries—Haiti which has 26 percent, and the Dominican Republic at 9 percent, according to the report.

Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mexico, and the Democratic Republic of Congo also are among the top 10 birthplaces of the students.

Overall, about 18 percent of black, foreign-born K-12 students are English-learners compared to 1 percent of U.S.-born black students.

Diverse Languages

While the most commonly spoken languages are identified with African and Central American countries, Arabic, Vietnamese, Japanese, and German are among the top 15 languages spoken at home by black ELLs.

“We know the black community in America is rich with many cultures and languages and has been evolving in the past few decades,” Khalilah Harris, the deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, wrote in a blog post on the Education Department’s website.

“Navigating household, community, and school culture can be a difficult situation for young people, and it is critical schools are prepared to support our youngest new Americans,” she wrote.

The push by the White House and Education Department is part of a broader effort to identify and prioritize the needs of the nation’s 5-million-plus English-language learners.

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Feds Put Spotlight on Needs of Black ELLs


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