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Opinion

Three Ways Communities Can Work Together to Support English Learners

Mary Jo Marion

Mary Jo MarionThis article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country. To read other stories in the “What’s Working” series, check out Suspensions Don’t Work, So What Does? and Colorado Saved Millions by Investing in Counselors. Here’s Their Advice to Other States.

Agustin Rac and Edgar Lopez left Guatemala for the United States when they were just 14 years old. They crossed the border without their parents or families, and they didn’t speak any English. Neither of them had been in any sort of formal school setting for years.

Today, they are on their way to graduating from high school here in Worcester, Massachusetts and are prepared to enter college next fall.

Agustin and Edgar shared their stories at a community event I spoke at earlier this fall, which was co-hosted by the Latino Education Institute at Worcester State University and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. At this event, Agustin and Edgar described the many challenges they faced on their journey from Guatemala to Worcester—chief among them, the language barrier.

They are certainly not alone.

There are 103 languages spoken by students in the Worcester Public Schools, and we have the largest percent of English learners in the state.

In fact, 21 percent of the population of our central Massachusetts city is made up of immigrants. One in three children here have at least one foreign-born parent. The vast majority (60.6 percent) of English learners speak Spanish, followed by Vietnamese (5.6 percent), Arabic (5.3 percent), and Twi (5.3 percent).

It’s not easy for the school district to try to meet all the different needs of such a diverse population, which is why leaders from 10 urban school districts recently gathered to focus on how to empower and support English Learners (EL) through school and community partnerships.

We discussed a few strategies that we believe are beginning to make a difference:

1. Before enrolling students in school, enroll them in other organizations that can help.

Agustin and Edgar came to Worcester through a foster care program run for unaccompanied refugee minors by Ascentria Care Alliance. Once they were set up with a foster family, they enrolled in the New Citizen Center, a program that helps foreign-born students learn English and get the skills they need to eventually enroll in a traditional high school.

The two young men have both been adopted by their foster families, and thanks to the support and staff of the Worcester Public Schools, they are on their way to graduating from University Park Campus School.

Ascentria Care Alliance and the New Citizen Center both played crucial roles in helping Agustin and Edgar succeed in school. But organizations need support too, which is why we’re committed to connecting them with a wider community network.

2. Create a network of organizations serving ELL students.

Last year, the Worcester school system created the English Language Learner Network, a network of all the organizations that ELL students, such as the Latino Education Institute (LEI), the African Community Education Program (ACE), and Southeast Asian Coalition (SEAC). This network meets three times a year and serves as a forum to talk about ways to share data and best practices and work together year-round.

By looking at all the data from each of these organizations, we were able to get a better understanding of what the students we serve look like. For example, we learned that while some students are nearing English proficiency, others speak almost no English at all.  

By understanding the different needs of our students, we are able to find ways to more effectively meet those needs.

3. Empower the families of students and getting them more involved.

There is no shortage of research telling us that students do better in school when their parents are involved at home. For years now, Worcester has tried to find programs that work to empower parents to be advocates for their children’s education.

Unfortunately, it’s been difficult to find a model with proven impact, and one that doesn’t simply lecture parents, but instead works to truly empower them to help their children set goals and prepare for college.

That’s why I am particularly excited about a program we just launched, the Worcester Institute for Parent Leadership and Education (WIPLE). Based on a parent engagement platform that started in California 20 years ago, it’s a program we know can work. 

We just wrapped up our first six-week module, in which parents learned things like goal-setting with their child, communication between child and parent, how to make sure their child is college-ready, and how to be an engaged citizen.

Too often, parent engagement programs want megaphones, not relationships. But WIPLE doesn’t talk at parents—it works with parents.

Worcester has a rich history of ethnic communities, schools, community organizations, and parents working together to better support their students.

A large influx of Latino students received support from community organizations such as the YWCA and Catholic Charities when schools were not yet prepared to help them.

In 1973, the Concilio de Padres (Hispanic Parents Advisory Council) was founded to demand equal education for Spanish-speaking students.

Collaborating and organizing is a part of our history—and paramount to our future.

Mary Jo Marion is the executive director of the Latino Education Institute at Worcester State University.

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