English-Language Learners

What Can Educators Do to Increase Graduation Rates for English-Learners?

By Corey Mitchell — May 11, 2017 3 min read
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Schools that want to improve the educational prospects for English-language learners should take account of what’s happening in their students’ lives outside the classroom, a new report from the research arm of America’s Promise Alliance finds.

“I Came Here to Learn,” the report by the Boston-based Center for Promise, sought to find out why the graduation rate for students whose first language isn’t English lags behind those of their native English-speaking peers, in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

Drawing on state data and interviews with Spanish-speaking English-learners, researchers determined that a host of factors can derail students on their path to earning a diploma. Among those factors: a lack of supportive relationships with teachers and other staff and competing priorities—such as jobs and serving as family caregivers—that leave less time and energy to focus on their studies.

Through interviews of students in five Massachusetts cities—Brockton, Chelsea, Revere, Somerville, and Worcester—the researchers highlight the economic and emotional strain that immigrant students, many of whom are English-learners, often endure if they’re separated from family members who are either back home in their native countries or ensnared in the immigration process.

The research team also explored how the initial experiences that families with limited English proficiency have with schools can guide their interactions years later.

“Because of their early experiences of disconnection and being treated poorly because of their language proficiency, later when they did become proficient they had developed this belief that they shouldn’t reach out because they would continue to be treated poorly or they wouldn’t be heard,” said Shannon Varga, the report co-author and a research fellow at Center for Promise.

“In this way, language is not just initially a barrier, it can continue to be a barrier,” Varga said.

To address language barriers and other issues, the report recommends that schools:

  • Create more avenues for students to connect with peers, teachers, and staff members
  • Allow students to play a role in designing their education
  • Prioritize family engagement at school to help parents become better advocates for their children and themselves
  • Provide flexible education options for older students who need to work while attending school
  • Give English-learners who are new to the country and those who qualify for free- and reduced-lunch prices more time to graduate.

The Center for Promise will host a panel discussion to discuss the findings, with the aim of challenging the notion that English-learners as a whole are low-performing and outlining the reasons why many may struggle in school.

“Language is so important, both of the parents and the young person, to be able to navigate their worlds both inside and outside of school,” said Jonathan Zaff, the executive director of the Center for Promise. “When they’re not proficient at English, it really provides a huge barrier to access the opportunities we want for all young people.”

The researchers note that former English-learners—those students who’ve mastered reading, writing, and speaking English—have higher graduation rates than their native English-speaking peers in Massachusetts. But that’s not the case nationwide, where the state of graduation rates for former and current ELLs is sobering.

The latest GradNation report found that students whose first language isn’t English graduated at rates of less than 70 percent in 33 states; in five of those states—Arizona, Nevada, New York, Virginia, and Hawaii—less than half of ELLs graduate in four years.

Read and Watch More Stories About English-Language Learners

Teaching America’s English-Language Learners (also available in Spanish/leer in Español )

Home-School Connections Help ELLs and Their Parents

To Help Language Learners, Extend Aid to Their Families Too

N.C. District Pursues More Opportunities for Undocumented Parents

Photo: Kevin Pineda, photographed in May 2016, credits a course taught by Joel Miller for helping him achieve proficiency in English and putting him on track to earn his diploma from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. —File photo by Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.