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Three Things that Can Make or Break FLNE Students’ Success

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

One in five students in Massachusetts is classified as FLNE, a student whose First Language is not English. Even though Massachusetts has increased its high school graduation rate from just below 80 percent to 86 percent in recent years—one of the highest in the country—the rate for FLNE students is only 70 percent.

A new report from the Center for Promise, the research institute of America’s Promise Alliance, helps explain why. I Came Here to Learn: The Achievements and Experiences of Massachusetts Students Whose First Language Is Not English uses both quantitative and qualitative research methods to better understand FLNE students, their barriers, and what would help them succeed.

The report, supported by Pearson, is a component of the GradNation State Activation initiative, a three-year partnership between America’s Promise and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation, collaboration and sharing of successful models. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, one of three State Activation grantees across the nation, chose to focus its effort on supporting a coalition of 10 Massachusetts school districts to improve graduation rates for FLNE students.

“When we ask young people what it is they need to succeed, they’ve consistently shown a heightened awareness of the opportunities and barriers before them,” said Dr. Shannon Varga, postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Promise and co-author of the report. “I Came Here to Learn examines the complex personal, social, and structural barriers to learning English that FLNE students repot having to navigate daily and highlights which supports help them persist.”

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From group interviews with Latinx students in five cities throughout Massachusetts—Brockton, Chelsea, Revere, Somerville, and Worcester—researchers heard three overarching things themes that impact their ability to thrive academically: The Self, Family, and School Climate.

Note: This story focuses on the qualitative findings. Read the full report for the quantitative results.

The Self

Young people discussed three themes that are integral to who they are and why they persist in and out of school: motivation, language, and competing priorities. They described their internal motivation to learn English, to succeed in school and graduate, and to take care of themselves and their families. For many of them, however, motivation was not enough to help them overcome the language barriers that kept them from advocating for themselves, as in the situation described by one young person:

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Many of the young people spoke of competing priorities, with some having to choose between going to school or maintaining a steady job to help care for their family. “Who’s gonna pay my bills? Nobody. So, I have to keep on going or survive by myself,” one young person said.

Family

Close ties with family were frequently discussed as relevant to youth’s academic persistence, engagement, and performance. They 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 policies.

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Despite the teacher’s good intentions, the report notes, the student above still keeps the true reason for her tears private. Coupled with the feelings of loss and yearning to be connected with family , this may further impact her level of engagement in class.

 

School Climate

This was one of the most powerful, consistent themes that emerged from conversations with youth, the researchers said. Some climates were discriminatory, others supportive. Either way, they were major players in the persistence of the young people interviewed.

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Some young people often felt ignored, unheard, and perceived as having lower competence because of their lack of language proficiency. Other times, young people perceived lower academic expectations as discriminatory. Some described how school policies that label and categorize students fostered unwelcoming climates:

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Many youth also spoke of teachers who made them feel welcome and cared for. They described what the report calls a “transcaring climate,” in which students feel as if their cultures, languages, and diversities are not only supported, but valued.

“As the number of FLNE students in public schools increases, I Came Here to Learn tell 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,” said Center for Promise Executive Director Dr. Jonathan Zaff.

So what words of advice did the young people have for schools, teachers, and other caring adults? Read the report to find out more and to review the qualitativefindings.

Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative
The 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.

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 Krista O’Connell with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.

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