I Came Here to Learn
THE ACHIEVEMENTS AND EXPERIENCES OF MASSACHUSETTS STUDENTS WHOSE FIRST LANGUAGE IS NOT ENGLISH
Youth whose First Language is Not English (FLNE)—an umbrella term that includes English Learners (ELs), youth who have reached English proficiency, and other nonnative English speakers who have never been enrolled in a formal EL program – represent the fastest growing segment of the United States public school population.
Even though FLNE students demonstrate high levels of optimism and motivation to succeed in school, they continue to have lower achievement and lower graduation rates than the national average. In Massachusetts, where one in five students is FLNE, the high school graduation rate for this key sub-group stands at just above 70 percent.
There are a number of reasons for this. FLNE young people may experience language gaps and competing priorities between school and work that make it difficult to navigate the education system. Language barriers can interfere with school policies and practices designed to engage families. FLNE students also face environmental stressors (poverty, family separations, discriminatory sociopolitical climates) that place them at greater risk for disconnection. The findings and the implications in I Came Here to Learn point Massachusetts and other states toward new ways of supporting stronger graduation outcomes for FLNE students.
The research is a component of the GradNation State Activation Initiative, a three-year partnership between America's Promise and Pearson that aims to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing knowledge to accelerate adoption of proven strategies, and developing successful models all states can replicate. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE), one of three State Activation grantees across the nation, chose to focus its effort on supporting a coalition of 10 Massachusetts urban school districts to improve graduation rates for FLNE students.
Through statistical analyses of statewide student-level data for more than 13,000 FLNE students, as well as group interviews with 24 Latinx young people in five cities throughout Massachusetts, the authors hoped to begin to answer these three questions:
- What distinct groups within the FLNE student population exist, as defined by clusters of characteristics (e.g., grades, age, and EL status)?
- Are some groups more likely to graduate high school than others?
- From the perspective of Latinx young people, what are the experiences and factors that contribute to their school persistence or choice to leave?
Overall, the results offer a story that complicates the traditional narrative about FLNE youth in the United States.
FLNE students in Massachusetts are not a homogenous group. The students, who speak different languages at home (Spanish, Khmer, Creole) and who have been in this country for varied lengths of time demonstrate different levels of proficiency in English and different levels of academic performance. As a result of the analysis of statewide data of FLNE students, six unique categories, or classes, emerged: students likely passing; excelling non-EL students; above average ELs; low-income, long-time residents, non-EL Spanish speakers; low-income, Spanish speaking, Massachusetts newcomers; and differentiated learners who speak Spanish. (See full definitions in report.)
Several themes emerged from this analysis:
EL does not equal low performing. The Above Average ELs class represents students who have all been enrolled in EL programs within the past two years. There is a high probability that these students are passing all ninth grade courses. These students are likely achieving proficiency above the state average for EL students for the Math MCAS and ELA MCAS. Further, their graduation rates are higher than the statewide average for ELs.
Some FLNE students are achieving academic success. All students in the Excelling Non-ELs class passed all ninth-grade courses, both the math and English Language Arts (ELA) portion of the grade 8 state standardized assessment (the MCAS), and are graduating at a higher average four-year rate than native English-speaking peers.
Not all Spanish speakers are the same. While Spanish is the most common first language among FLNE students in Massachusetts, it is notable that Spanish-speaking students were distributed across three unique classes with varying levels of performance.
Two groups of FLNE students clearly need more support. The Low-Income, Spanish Speaking, Massachusetts Newcomers, and Differentiated Learners Who Speak Spanish represent the two classes with the lowest four-year graduation rates.
More time might lead to additional students attaining a diploma. Low-Income, Spanish Speaking, Massachusetts Newcomers, and Differentiated Learners Who Speak Spanish have the largest increases in graduation rates once five-year rates are considered. These classes are also predominantly Spanish speaking and include the largest number of students who are new to Massachusetts public schools.
The research team conducted group interviews in five cities—Brockton, Chelsea, Revere, Somerville, and Worcester—to hear firsthand about the lived experiences of FLNE youth. Across the five sites, FLNE Latinx youth provided detailed descriptions of the various challenges and supports that shape their experiences living in the United States. Ultimately, the three following contexts were important to understanding their lived experiences: The Self, Family, and School.
Across all sites, young people discussed motivation, language, and competing priorities as integral to who they are and why they persist in and out of school. These three themes comprise “the self” and are presented first because the young people bring “the self” into every context.
Close ties with family were frequently discussed as relevant to youth’s academic persistence, engagement, and performance. Youth talked about the close ties and various supports they received from family members that contributed positively to their academic achievement and general well-being, as well as the emotional toll of being separated from family members due to immigration.
One of the most powerful, consistent themes that emerged from conversations with young people about their experiences in school relates to school climate. Some young people described unsupportive and discriminatory actions and messages they received from school personnel and peers. Others described school climates that supported each young person, with teachers, administrators, and peers demonstrating authentic care for young people and appreciation for their individual backgrounds. Young people consistently spoke about the impact that these different messages had on their school experiences and levels of engagement.
The Center for Promise research team went straight to the source and asked FLNE young people what improvements they would make to programs, policies, and practices to help other students learn English and persist in school through graduation. Presented here are recommendations based on their responses and experiences.
Create more opportunities for connection. Youth described how connection with peers and adults is important for battling prejudice and fostering a sense of community in school.
Continue to increase opportunities for teacher training and sharing of promising practices. Highly effective educators, who are trained to serve EL students, are critically important to the state’s efforts to increase academic performance for all EL and FLNE youth and can help provide them with the supports necessary to reach graduation.
Engage young people in the design of educational programs that serve FLNE students.
When asked, young people expressed their desire for more bilingual staff, increased opportunities for employment assistance, and greater opportunities to interact with their native English-speaking peers.
“Diría yo que la mejor regla seria que nos hablaran pues, un tiempito español para pues mientras nos acostumbramos, aprendemos lo básico y ya después puro inglés. Pues, esa es una de las reglas que está aquí, que me gusta esa regla.”
“I’d say that the best rule would be to talk to us in Spanish for some time so we get used to it and we learn the basics, and then just English. That’s one of the rules we have here and I like that rule.” –Julio
Provide more flexible programs for older youth. Older youth spoke about the need to earn money to take care of family and how this was often in conflict with their desire to attain a high school diploma. Providing flexibility to help these young people balance their family responsibilities and course load could lead to increased graduation rates.
“Si. Yo hablé con la profesora… si podía dejar entrar… por lo menos a las nueve de la mañana para yo descansar un poco más. Pero el detalle era que la primera clase que yo tenia era necesaria para la graduación. Entonces no me la podía cambiar.”
“I talked to the teacher... to see if they could let me come in... at least 9 a.m. so I could rest a little bit more. But, I had to take the class in the first period because it was necessary for graduation. So, they couldn’t change it for me.” –Ana
Provide more comprehensive student supports. Full-service community schools, as well as nonprofit organizations, such as Beacon Centers in New York City, offer models for how schools can create partnerships to provide these supports.
Support the student by supporting the family. Schools should continue to mine research and best practices to better engage and support families. Districts can support these efforts by allocating resources to a school counselor, social worker, or family engagement specialist who can serve as the link between home and school. In addition, offering opportunities for family members to learn English specifically at their child’s school could lead to an increase in the parents’ level of comfort with their child’s educational environment.
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I Came Here to Learn was co-authored by Shannon Varga, Max Margolius, Catalina Tang Yan, Marissa Cole and Jonathan Zaff with the Center for Promise. The research is part of the GradNation State Activation initiative, a three-year collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson that aims to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing knowledge to accelerate adoption of proven strategies, and developing successful models all states can replicate. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is one of three State Activation grantees across the nation.
To learn more about the initiative or to join the GradNation Learning Community, please email [email protected].
The 5 Promises
The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below: