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Boosting Grad Rates for Students Whose First Language Isn’t English

Massachusetts School Districts Search for Innovative Solutions to High FLNE Dropout Rates

This article is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income students, English-language learners, students of color and students with disabilities.

Boosting Grad RatesNearly half of the students at Revere High School in Massachusetts, just outside Boston, speak a first language other than English. Across the Revere school district, nearly a third of the minority students are foreign born.

That’s an asset – and a challenge – for the community.

“Revere's key asset is the rich diversity of its residents and the presence of many deeply rooted and committed teachers and staff,” said Megan Fidler-Carey, a Revere administrator. “It’s imperative that we support the FLNE students, wraparound services and all.”

Why? Far too many of the students whose first language is not English (FLNEs) are leaving school without graduating.

As a national leader for education outcomes, Massachusetts has made progress increasing its overall high school graduation rate from just below 80 percent in 2006 to 87.3 percent in 2015. Despite these large gains, FLNE students account for 17.1 percent of the students in the state but 30.2 percent of those who drop out.

English-language learners (ELLs) made up 9.2 percent of public school students, or 4.4 million students, in 2013 – up from 8.7 percent, or 4.1 million, in 2003.

Nationally, the graduation rate for English-language learners was 62.6 percent in 2014, compared to the country’s overall graduation rate of 82.3 percent, according to recently released numbers from the U.S. Department of Education.

Thirty-five states graduate less than 70 percent of English language-learners – including Massachusetts, at 64 percent. Seven of those states have ELL graduation rates under 50 percent. 

A Search for Solutions

Boosting Grad RatesThe GradNation State Activation initiative, a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson working to raise high school graduation rates to 90 percent, recently awarded the state of Massachusetts a $200,000 grant to increase the graduation rate for students whose first language is not English.

The grant will help the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE), led by its Office of College and Career Readiness, create a state-level coalition of 10 school districts to improve high school graduation rates for FLNE students.

These districts— Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Holyoke, New Bedford, Worcester, Everett, Revere, Lowell, and Somerville — will receive grants to serve as demonstration sites for the planning and implementation of innovative programs and policies.

ESE will also facilitate a learning community in which the districts will receive professional development and training, share ideas, and collaborate with state and community partners.

The question is often: “How do we develop programming that will support a teenage student who comes into the country with little or no education to graduate high school within four years?” said Linda Breau of the Boston-area Chelsea district, where 85 percent of students are FLNEs, largely Hispanic.

“Undocumented and unaccompanied students are continually trickling in from Central American countries,” said Breau, Chelsea’s assistant superintendent for strategic programs and accountability. “They are the larger community, and we need to find better ways for them to be successful and stay in school.”

In the Lowell school district, located in a northern suburb of Boston, the FLNE population accounted for 25.5 percent of the students who left school last year. Almost half of them were Hispanic.

To boost graduation rates among the Hispanic population, the district plans to identify leading contributors to leaving school – including suspensions, school moves and course failures – according to Jill Lang, director of the Lowell district’s Freshman Academy, a program that helps students transition into high school. She added the district aims to examine ways to “identify stronger interventions that will support these students.”

In addition, Lowell has a Drop-Out Prevention Task Force and a District Attendance Team that have helped schools identify students at risk of leaving school. And many of the district’s schools have developed tiered systems of support and have adopted Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, an approach designed to assist students in danger of falling behind.

As its school districts review their approaches, Massachusetts is gearing up to help them face the challenge of serving FLNEs, said Nyal Fuentes, college and career readiness specialist with the state education department.

“Massachusetts has the momentum, history of results and multi-sector commitment to be a national leader for developing and documenting what works with this important student group,” Fuentes said.

GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.  

To read other stories in the “90 for All” series, check out New Data Highlights Low-Income Student Graduation Gaps and State of the States: 17 Governors on Grad Rates.

Join the GradNation Learning Community

To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to Corey Benjamin with your name, email address and organizational affiliation.

To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.