English-Language Learners

How Districts Can Ensure English Learners Have CTE Access

By Ileana Najarro — April 21, 2023 5 min read
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English learners are represented well in career and technical education programs in proportion to their makeup of the K-12 student population at state and federal levels, according to a new analysis from the Migration Policy Institute think tank.

But there are steps individual school districts and schools can take to ensure all English learners, including older newcomers, aren’t missing out on participating in the growing wave of CTE programs available across the country.

Julie Sugarman, senior policy analyst for PreK-12 education at the Migration Policy Institute, published a new report on English learners’ participation in CTE programs. In it, she highlights how in 2018 Congress reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984. That reauthorization included several provisions to better include special populations in CTE, including English learners.

While national and state level data show a fair representation of this student group in CTE, there isn’t a breakdown of subgroups including how many of these English learners are also from low-income households, how many have a disability, and how many are newcomers or English learners with beginner-level English proficiency.

“Any particular student’s experience is really going to depend on the knowledge and well meaning of the staff, and whether staff are actually recruiting them for these programs, explaining them, and getting the information translated at the individual district or school level,” Sugarman said.

Sugarman and district leaders offer the following advice to ensure all English learners have equitable access to quality CTE instruction, including the role cross-departmental collaboration plays.

Work with the community

Districts and schools need to be able to identify particular concerns that specific cultural communities have about CTE, making sure that they really understand what it is, what the benefits are, and other details that immigrant parents may really not be familiar with, Sugarman said.

In the Aldine Independent School District in Harris County, Texas, members of the CTE department attend community events to get the word out about the various programs the district offers.

That’s where they find misconceptions, said Brooke Martin, executive director of CTE programs for the Aldine district. For instance, families assume participation in JROTC is just for those looking to serve in the military, or some think their children can’t participate due to their family’s immigration status.

Martin’s team fills families in on eligibility and the leadership skills students can gain from such a program.

Invest in teacher training

“Many CTE teachers come from industry, and they don’t really have great pedagogical training in general, but then certainly not in regard to English learners,” Sugarman said.

Some CTE teachers may also not have as much experience working with students who are not fluent in English, she added.

Recognizing this, Martin in Aldine worked together with Altagracia “Grace” Delgado, executive director of multilingual services in the district, to bring training to their new CTE teachers. Members of Delgado’s team met with new CTE teachers, going over teaching strategies for English learners, including what it means to scaffold instruction.

“What does that look like in your classroom? What does it look like when you know the student is using it? And so it became a workshop where teachers were able to incorporate [training] and apply it, and they have the feedback of support with Grace’s team directly in the room with our teachers,” Martin said.

Teachers in Aldine also received professional development around promoting CTE programs to English learners.

Have the right mindset in place

Districts and schools need to make sure that everybody is on the same page in terms of English learners belonging in CTE and that they can succeed within CTE, Sugarman said.

It’s why cross-departmental collaboration is key as seen in Aldine.

The district is 45 percent English learners, Delgado said, and in her review of how well these students were engaging with elective courses, she saw an opportunity to work with Martin and her team.

The idea of silos where those in charge of CTE only oversee students in those programs, and only those working in multilingual services oversee English learners isn’t conducive for students.

“We don’t have enough personnel to do that. Students are students and they belong to all of us. And we’re responsible for all of them together,” Delgado said.

All educators need to also see the value CTE offers English learners, said Kate Kreamer, deputy executive director of the Advance CTE nonprofit.

This program offers ways to help can help with boosting graduation rates, and can offer connections and many more post-secondary opportunities.

“I think, certainly for English learners, that connection piece you have to your teacher, to your school, to your community, to your other peers, is really meaningful,” Kreamer said.

Allow for flexibility in student participation

Whether it’s schedule accommodations, or workarounds for undocumented students, districts and schools need to identify ways to be flexible in how they offer and run CTE programs for all English learners, Sugarman said.

For instance, while it can be a challenge for smaller districts, Sugarman said it’s worth looking into how to offer evening CTE classes to accommodate schedules that require English learners to spend a lot of the regular school day on language development courses. That often leaves English learners with fewer options to participate in electives.

Some states and districts face the issue of how to support undocumented students, and particularly through work-based learning such as internships and apprenticeships, Kreamer said. As workarounds, some districts have offered these students stipends instead of salaries.

In the Aldine district, Delgado works with her team and counselors to better assess school transcripts of newcomer students to see if they were able to meet credit requirements abroad. If so, that gives them more time to take electives such as CTE.

The district also ensures that if an English learner wants to participate in a specialized CTE program, they have the opportunity to apply just as the rest of their peers, Martin said.

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