In a Center for Promise study released this spring, an important finding emerged: Students whose first language is not English (FLNE) are not a homogenous group. But schools are often tasked with treating this dynamic group of students as if they are all the same.
“We are asked to improve their outcomes as if they were a homogeneous group, and I think the research helped to underscore this is not the case,” Mary Jo Marion, Director of the Latino Education Institute at Worcester State University, said in a webinar hosted by Education Week on June 20.
Experts even struggle with the right terminology for these students. While some may use the term FLNE (First Language Not English) and EL (English learner) interchangeably, there’s an important distinction: not all FLNE students are English learners, but all English learners are FLNE.
Marion proposed a different descriptor: Emerging Bilingual Students. “Oftentimes, English learners are seen as less than or somehow lacking. But if we change the terminology to Emerging bilingual Students,” she said, “you are saying that these students are achieving, and that they should be credited with additional knowledge.”
Whatever their title, these students represent the fastest growing portion of the school age population in the United States, as Center for Promise research fellow Shannon Varga said in the webinar. In Massachusetts, they represent one in five of their school age population—but they are graduating at far lower rates than their peers.
“Massachusetts students have one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the country, at about 88 percent,” Varga said. “However, based on data from their most recent cohort of students, FLNE students are graduating at just above 70 percent.”
What these numbers don’t tell is that there are many English learners who are doing quite well academically, another finding that emerged in I Came Here to Learn. The report also shed light on which students need additional support.
Marion said this kind of research can help practitioners create more targeted strategies. For example, English learners who have just arrived in the country may need to be connected to community resources, while students who are more established and doing well in high school need more accelerated coursework and help applying to college.
While these kinds of tailored approaches are important, Marion said there is one strategy that applies to all FLNE students: family engagement.
“Research has shown that family engagement for EL students and immigrant groups is very effective,” she said. “It helps all students, but it particularly helps newcomer groups.”
Supporting the student by supporting the family is also one of the implications in the research that stemmed from youth interviews. One idea included allocating school resources to counselors, social workers, and family engagement specialists who can serve as a link between home and school.
Another approach is the Parent Institute for Quality Education in Worcester, which LEI implemented two years ago. The program offers nine weeks of workshops to parents on how to effectively engage with their children’s schools.
“We can say the outcomes have been quite strong,” Marion said, referring to the Parent Institute. “While the research talks about classification, there are some things we should be doing for all students in a universal way, and this is one.”
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