College & Workforce Readiness

Helping English-Learners Graduate From High School: Lessons From New York

By Catherine Gewertz — March 21, 2017 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Students who are learning English often fall behind on key indicators of academic progress. They trail their native-English-speaking peers on national and state tests, and are less likely to finish high school.

Nationally, 83 percent of students graduate from high school in four years, but not even two-thirds of English-learners do. In some states they fare far worse: In Arizona and Nevada, for instance, two states with huge English-learner populations, barely one-third of English-learners finish high school on time.

So it’s encouraging to hear about schools that are bucking those trends. A cluster of schools in New York City has some valuable lessons to share about successful strategies in boosting the grad rate for English-learners. They’re particularly relevant as the Every Student Succeeds Act introduces a new requirement: Schools now have to show that they’re increasing the English-language proficiency of their immigrant students.

As detailed in a story by Chalkbeat, here are a few themes that emerge from a small group of high schools that have been successful with English-learners:

Dual-language programs can be a powerful weapon. At the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, the blend of challenging coursework with an enrollment that feature a “healthy mix” of both native-English speakers and Mandarin speakers has been a not-so-secret weapon. While the citywide on-time graduation rate for all students hovers at 73 percent, and is barely half for English-learners, nearly every student at this high school graduated.

Integrated programs have particular strengths, too. At the Internationals Network for Public Schools, teachers work in teams to blend the study of English with content study. The network’s leaders don’t want to wait until students master English to immerse them in challenging subject-matter study. They use group projects as a key vehicle for this approach, deliberately grouping together students who vary in grade level and proficiency so they can learn from one another. The grad rate at schools in the network is 74 percent.

Monitor language proficiency closely and move students up as soon as they’re ready. The High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies has put flexibility and scheduling in its sights. Its staff monitors students’ English-language progress closely, and moves them up into harder English classes as soon as they’re ready, even if that’s midway through the year. They want to make sure students don’t suddenly find they can’t graduate because they lack English credits.

Inclusion in school culture is important. Leaders of the city’s Robert F. Kennedy Community High School, an integrated EL program, puts a strong emphasis on making sure immigrant students participate in sports and clubs and are part of school celebrations.

Have high expectations. It’s that lamentable old saw: Low expectations still plague far too many schools. English-learners suffer too often from educators’ assumptions that they need watered-down material. “You can’t automatically assume they can’t do things. They can,” Li Yan, the principal of the High School for Dual Language and Asian Students, told Chalkbeat. “You have to have high expectations.”

Dump the “deficit” mindset. This one isn’t mentioned in the Chalkbeat story, but it’s a mainstay of conversation among educators who work with students who’ve traditionally been marginalized: members of language-minority groups, racial/ethnic minority groups, or low-income students. A 2013 report by the Alliance for Excellent Education urges educators to view students’ unique profiles as strengths, rather than weaknesses.

“English-learner] students enter the U.S. education system with numerous linguistic and cultural resources that remain largely untouched by their teachers and classrooms,” the Alliance report says. “Capitalizing on these resources can improve EL achievement and stem the flow of dropouts.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.