New Model for English Language Learners Needed in U.S. Schools

06/05/2015 04:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Immigration has been a hot button issue for decades and, while Washington continues to play partisan politics, local school districts are struggling to address the challenges created by the influx of these new students, most of whom come from households where English is not the primary language.

But what most people don't know is that the majority of non-native English speakers, designated as English Language Learners (ELL), in our public schools were born in the U.S. These are American citizens that the system is leaving behind. So, regardless of your position on immigration, a national commitment to helping ELLs will benefit all of these students, including millions of American citizens.

The ELL explosion is not only an issue for the states on the Mexican border. According to the most recent federal statistics (school year 2011-2012), nine percent of the overall student population is comprised of ELLs. While Texas and California lead the nation, other states with large ELL communities include Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Maryland and Massachusetts. And, while urban districts have the largest percentage of ELL students as part of the total school population (14.2%), swelling numbers of English Language Learners can be found in suburbs (9%), small towns (6.2%) and even rural areas (3.9%).

This growth has only accelerated of late and is leading toward a reckoning for U.S. school systems. English Language Learning has become the new "budget buster" for public school systems across the country. Last month, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to bring the Holyoke School District under state control. A big reason cited for the state takeover in Holyoke, a city of 40,000 residents in the western part of the state, was the inability to control costs or boost achievement for its English Language Learners.

On the whole, ELLs have a significant educational achievement gap compared to native English speakers. This makes sense: imagine if you, with limited formal education in your native language, moved to Spain and attended a school where all of the curriculum was taught in Spanish. While you may pick up enough Spanish to communicate with your peers, you would still be at a significant academic disadvantage to native speakers, particularly in subjects like math, science and literature. Why do we expect non-native English speakers, often from homes where little English is spoken, to be thrown into the deep end of the pool and start swimming immediately--especially when studies show that it takes the average ELL student five to seven years to properly master English in the academic setting.

While Holyoke's struggles are becoming all too real for many urban districts, it doesn't have to be this way. Just 45 minutes south of Holyoke, in Hartford, Connecticut, an ELL success story is percolating. Recognizing that ELL costs were rising and student achievement was falling short, district leaders, including Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, looked for a new model to help close the ELL achievement gap.

The district collaborated with Middlebury Interactive on a pilot program for 300 students in grades 4-8 this school year. The comprehensive program blends rigorous digital curriculum, project-based learning activities, authentic multicultural materials and teacher training, based on extensive research by academic experts in second language acquisition.

HPS teachers and staff worked last summer with Middlebury Interactive academics to design and build blended learning curriculum modules specific to the needs of ELL students at those grade levels. The program is slated for expansion to reach more students in the 2015-2016 school year. The pilot also provided significant training and support for the ELL teachers, who are employees of the district.

While overall student performance in the pilot has so far outpaced those of students in the traditional ELL program, the most pronounced change in Hartford has been in the learning culture. ELLs typically have a higher dropout rate than the general student population, and truancy is a huge issue as well. Many students don't feel like they are learning so they stop coming to school--and in most cases never catch up. But Monica Quinones, director of ELL services for HPS, told eSchoolNews that the pilot program is really engaging students:

"We often talk about high rates of absenteeism among ELLs but what we've noticed in the eight pilot schools is excellent attendance--near 100 percent. That's telling. It suggests a high level of engagement."

What's more, parents of the participating students are also taking a great interest in the education of their kids. Teachers report that the evening parent information sessions, which typically draw less than a handful of parents, have enjoyed a remarkable 90 percent participation. The parents are witnessing the excitement for learning displayed by the students and can also participate in the digital activities of the courses at home.

This newfound engagement of students and parents bodes well for the future, with the promise that this won't just be a one-year wonder for ELL students. In fact, many students in the ELL programs report that higher education is now a real--and attainable--goal. Since economic achievement is directly connected to educational attainment, a national commitment to ELLs will result in more high school and college graduates, which in turn will create higher employment levels, higher income levels and larger tax contributions for this large demographic of students.
After all, isn't the goal of our public education system to create a level playing field so that all students have access to a good education and a brighter future? Right now, that just isn't the case for millions of kids, including many American citizens.