Increasing ELL grad rates requires flexibility

Increasing ELL grad rates requires flexibility

(Mass.) English learners and those recently deemed English proficient may need more flexible schedules and additional chances to build deeper connections with peers and adults in order for schools to improve graduation rates, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Center for Promise, the Boston-based research institute of America’s Promise Alliance, found that in Massachusetts, a significant gap remains between the graduation rates of English learners and their native speaker peers.

In surveys with youth whose first language is not English (identified as FLNE), authors of the report found that outside obligations such as jobs as well as a perceived lack of support from adults at the school led some to fall behind.  

"As the number of FLNE students in public schools increases, (this report) tells us that FLNE youth, like all youth, will succeed in school and life when they have access to trusting relationships with peers and adults and the right support they need in school, in their homes, and throughout their communities,” Jonathan Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise, said in a statement.  “But what we also see are indications that we, as a society, are not holding up our end of the bargain. Too many FLNE youth continue to struggle, even after becoming English proficient.”

English learners are the fastest growing subgroup in the public school population, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to establish a uniform process of identifying these students, helping them reach English language proficiency and transition into the general education setting.

State data shows there are 123 native languages other than English spoken in school districts across Massachusetts, which can be difficult to accommodate in schools with fewer resources for English learners. Currently, English learners and those recently labeled as proficient make up one in every five students in the state.

Currently, Massachusetts has an overall high school graduation rate of 86 percent–one of the highest in the country–but for non-native English speakers, the graduation rate is 70 percent.

Center for Promise researchers analyzed student-level data provided by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for more than 13,000 English learners or those reclassified as proficient. Group interviews with Latino youth in five cities throughout Massachusetts—Brockton, Chelsea, Revere, Somerville, and Worcester—were conducted as well.

Students interviewed said that competing priorities with school, including work to help provide for their family or caring for younger siblings and older relatives, often made it hard to keep up with school or make it on time. Others reported emotion, academic and economic impacts caused by family separation through immigration challenges; but noted that supportive relationships with caring adults and peers encouraged them to persist.

In order to help students overcome these issues and push through to graduation, researchers recommend schools provide more flexible programs for older children to enable them to also earn money to contribute to the household. Districts should also look for ways to further foster family engagement and a positive school climate to allow for healthy relationships among students and teachers.

Doing so, according to authors of the study, would help schools get closer to reaching a national goal outlined under the Obama administration to raise high school graduation rates to 90 percent by 2020. A report released earlier this month by America’s Promise Alliance found that English learners graduated at rates less than 70 percent in 33 states.

“Equity gaps remain a clear challenge for raising high school graduation rates among English Learners in Massachusetts and several other states,” John Gomperts, president of America’s Promise Alliance, said in a statement. “The country must intensify its efforts with this key subgroup if we are to reach the goal of 90 percent on-time graduation.”