Special Report

For Stalled ELL Students, Graduation Is Often an Elusive Goal

By Alyson Klein — May 11, 2016 11 min read
Kevin Pineda, 18, is due to graduate from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles in June. After years of struggling to master English, Pineda credits a course taught by Joel Miller for helping him achieve proficiency in English and putting him on track to earn his diploma.
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Three years ago, Kevin Pineda—who came to the United States from Guatemala at age 6—was failing or struggling in nearly all his classes at Fairfax High School here.

He was on the verge of following his father’s advice to drop out of school and come work alongside him as an electrician.

Part of what changed Pineda’s mind: the one class he liked and was beginning to succeed in, Advanced English Language Development.

That class was a brand-new course aimed at students, who, like Pineda, had been enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District for years but never managed to “reclassify” and move on from the English-language-learner designation.

Pineda, now 18, liked that the class gave him time to practice his language skills by talking to his peers and the chance to read out loud without feeling embarrassed. And he liked the teacher, Joel Miller, who had more than 40 years in the classroom.

Little by little, phrases that Pineda heard in other classes—the so-called “academic English"—began to make more sense. He understood, for instance, what his math teacher meant when he said “the sum of.” His grades improved.

Now, Pineda is a senior, on track to graduate in June, and planning to enroll in an electrician-training program at the Los Angeles Trade and Technical College. He expects that earning an advanced certification will ultimately help him command a higher salary than his father has in the same profession.

Pineda—who was reclassified as English-proficient in 2014—looks like an early success story for California’s, and particularly, LAUSD’s push to get its arms around a population that has flown under the radar nationally for decades: long-term English-language learners, or what the district calls “LTELs.”

The district’s efforts were triggered in part by a 2010 investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights into educational opportunities for English-language learners in the nation’s second-largest school district. That probe found that instruction for ELLs was inadequate and needed a dramatic overhaul. The finding was a damning one on sheer scale alone: Los Angeles Unified enrolls more than 150,000 English-learners, the most of any district in the country and in more than all but a handful of states.

In response, the district promised to revamp its master plan for ELLs, including a special focus on students who had taken developmental-English classes for years but hadn’t yet been deemed proficient.

Long-term English-learners make up the vast majority of the overall ELL population in LAUSD, about 80 percent, estimates Hilda Maldonado, the executive director of the district’s multilingual and multicultural education department.

Andrew Echeverria, left, gets help from Joel Miller, a veteran educator who teaches a course for long-term English-learners at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. The course was created to help students who have struggled to become proficient in English.

Up until several years ago, they often languished in classes with ELLs with a range of abilities, or in classes that didn’t meet their unique needs, she said.

So over the past few years, Maldonado and her team designed a pair of new classes especially for long-term English-learners, at both the middle and high school levels, from scratch—a tall order given the dearth of research and instructional materials for this population.

In addition, the district trained more than 1,200 teachers on how to recognize, have empathy for, and teach these students, who often have challenges that can try even a veteran educator.

“We’re trying to do the research and the curriculum and the programming all at the same time,” Maldonado said. “It’s a huge undertaking.”

Helping English-Learners Catch Up

So far, the district’s efforts have resulted in the reclassification of more than 37,000 former long-term ELLs as English-proficient. But given the size of its long-term ELL population, the district has a way to go, Maldonado said.

Still, Laurie Olsen, a leading researcher on long-term ELLs and the director of the Sobrato Early Academic Language model at the Sobrato Family Foundation, thinks the district’s efforts are a move in the right direction.

“I think it was a major and courageous step for them to say, ‘Yes, we really have a problem,’ and we’re going to respond to it,” Olsen said. “It was really important that they mobilized around selecting curriculum, putting courses in place, and investing in professional development. That’s what districts need to do.”

It’s unclear how many long-term ELLs in Los Angeles Unified and across the country are at risk of dropping out, in part because these students haven’t gotten much attention until recently. For the most part, they have good social English, but fall well short of mastering the more sophisticated, subject-area-specific language that is necessary to succeed academically.

In 2012, California became the first state to require a common definition and reporting on the number of long-term English-learners school by school.

And in 2014, Californians Together, an advocacy organization that helped bring long-term ELLs into the spotlight, found that nearly 75 percent of the state’s English-learners had been in California’s public schools for more than seven years without gaining the skills they needed to succeed academically.

Course Access Is a Barrier

How those numbers compare with the rest of the nation is uncertain, but researchers may soon find out. The new Every Student Succeeds Act requires states and districts to report on the number of ELLs who attended schools in districts for five years or more without being reclassified as proficient in English.

For now, California—and the federal Education Department—don’t collect data on graduation rates for long-term ELLs specifically.

But it’s clear that a graduation gap between ELLs and their English-proficient peers exists.

Nationally, only 62.6 percent of English-language learners graduated from high school in the 2013-14 school year, compared with 82 percent of all students, according to federal data. In California, the graduation rate for ELLs is 65 percent, compared with 81 percent for all students, during the same school year. (One key fact unique to the English-learner subgroup is that it is the only category of students that is constantly changing. There is always an influx of students into the ELL category, accompanied by those who move out of the category when they are reclassified as proficient in English.)

Failure to master English isn’t the direct culprit for the lagging graduation rates—no state requires English-language proficiency as an explicit requirement for high school graduation, according to the Education Commission of the States.

But nearly all states call for three or four units of English to graduate, and long-term ELLs don’t necessarily have the academic-language know-how to succeed in those classes, or master the complex lexicon of other required courses such as chemistry or algebra.

What’s more, most states, including California, are silent on whether districts can allow a student to substitute an English-as-a-second-language course for a traditional English class.

In LAUSD, students must take at least four rigorous English courses that meet the basic admissions requirements of the University of California system in order to earn a high school diploma.

So when the new courses for long-term ELLs were first rolled out in 2013, many students worried that having to take an extra English course could put them further behind the graduation eight ball.

Courses for Long-Term ELLs Get University of California Approval

But recently, LAUSD submitted the pair of courses designed for long-term ELLs to the UC system—and got approval for both of them to count toward the English graduation requirement for students taking them for the first time.

Now, the courses are no longer “empty credits,” said Lester Malta, a secondary English-learner-education specialist in the district who helped create the classes.

Furthermore, the university system’s blessing validates the district’s approach, he said.

“The rigor part of it had to be there. Basically, I was writing a university course” that could be accessible to students still reading at the elementary level, Malta said.

The two courses—Literature and Language and Advanced English Language Development—place a heavy emphasis on relatable, real-world questions and issues, designed to both engage students and meet the Common Core State Standards demand for nonfiction.

For example, in a recent Literature and Language class at Dobson Middle School in south Los Angeles, a small group of students debated whether teenagers’ drivers’ licenses should be suspended if they aren’t doing well in school. The teacher—Lovelyn Marquez-Prueher, a former California teacher of the year—relied on pictures to help students understand new concepts and asked them to constantly discuss questions in pairs.

Whenever the class hit an unfamiliar word—say, “qualifications"—Marquez-Prueher gave a broad clue to its meaning.

She explained, for instance, that she was “qualified” to be their teacher because she had worked with English-learners for years. Eventually, the class came up with an easy-to-grasp, student-friendly definition.

Later, the students applied the new word to their analysis of an article and decided that, yes, the educational expert quoted on drivers’ licenses in an article was qualified to talk about the issue.

Stalled English-Learners Can Get Discouraged

Such lessons are supplemented with high-interest novels, all of which have a common theme of resilience, such as “Divergent” or “The Book Thief.”

That theme imparts a particularly important message to long-term ELLs, many of whom have grown discouraged that they haven’t made the move to being a full-fledged English-proficient student, said Monica Aguilar, who teaches one of the developmental-English courses at Wilmington Middle School, in an industrial, heavily Latino community on the city’s southside.

“A lot of them come in with a little bit of an attitude of being defeated, you know [like], ‘I can’t get out of the program, it’s too difficult,’” Aguilar said.

But she tells her students, “You have to demonstrate these sorts of attitudes, not just learn about them. You have to let them manifest in yourself so that you can, and you will, be reclassified.”

Still there was—and is—plenty of pushback on the courses from students, many of whom think their English is just fine.

Some former long-term ELLs at Fairfax High School said they didn’t realize they were English-learners until they got to the high school. And when some of the students found out they’d have to take a second English class, they protested, cried, or both, said Randy Grant, the school’s ESL coordinator and bilingual-literacy coach.

At first, guidance counselors were loathe to take students out of elective courses that engaged their interests, like art or gym. The English Language Development department had to “be the meanies,” Grant said.

Fairfax students weren’t the only ones who were confused. Some teachers didn’t understand how students who had been in the district for years and seemingly had no trouble talking to their peers could truly still be trying to master the language. Early on, teachers would say things along the lines of “oh, don’t tell me this kid’s an English-learner. She speaks just fine. She cussed me out,” Grant said.

He had to explain to his colleagues, “Well yeah, she can do that, but ask her to explain a process or to write something academically, and she can’t.”

The school’s principal, Carmina Nacorda, asked some general education teachers to help counsel students and their families about their status and goals. That went a long way toward building their colleagues’ understanding of the population and the specialized needs that required head-on attention, Grant said.

Now, Fairfax High is outpacing the district average when it comes to reclassifying long-term English-learners, and many of the school’s students who are still stuck have other academic and/or behavioral challenges.

Long-Term ELLs in Danger of Dropping Out

Still, long-term ELLs remain a tough group to reach—and some are in danger of failing to graduate.

Case in point: an 11th grader at Fairfax who was back in class on a recent afternoon for the first time in more than a week. The teenager may only have a quarter of the credits he needs to graduate, his teacher, Serafin Alvarez, estimates.

“I’ve had him for two years, back to back,” in the class aimed at long-term English-learners, Alvarez said. “I don’t think he’s making any progress” despite numerous interventions, including parent conferences.

On a recent afternoon, Alvarez employed the strategies that are the hallmark of the district’s approach to teaching long-term ELLs—showing a video on a current issue and asking students to discuss the issue in groups and read chunks of an article on the topic aloud to one another.

But many of the students goofed off and left class without completing the assignment.

Their teacher—who has been in the classroom for more than a dozen years and also teaches an Advanced Placement English course—finds himself increasingly frustrated.

“I’m not going to pretend I have the magic to fix this,” Alvarez said. “I don’t.”

More than half the students in one of his English-language-development classes are failing or have D’s, he said, even though he sometimes feels like he’s lowering the bar to give them credit for even making an effort on an assignment.

Grant agrees that some students aren’t easy to reach, but educators can’t give up. After all, in the case of the Fairfax High 11th grader, he’s still coming to class, a signal that he remains invested. But students who become disillusioned and disengaged by the time they get to high school underscore how crucial the long-term ELL courses are at the middle school level, where students seem less likely than those in high school to throw up their hands after years of trying to grasp academic English.

Meanwhile, the district is working to beef up its prevention efforts at the elementary level, Maldonado and others said, to stem the tide of students who end up languishing as English-learners.

After all, unlike “newcomers” who show up on the district’s doorstep with varying levels of schooling in their home countries, long-term English-learners have been part of the district for years, said Helen Choi, an English-learner program coordinator in the southern part of the district.

“They’re homegrown,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of Education Week as For Stalled ELL Students, Graduation Is Often an Elusive Goal


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