Scott Depew had to deliver some bad news last year when he was vice principal at Hermiston High School.
“I had two English Learner students who had plenty of credits, but they were both lacking two full credits of communications,” Depew said. “Getting them to understand that they’d have to stay a fifth year at school was a challenge. When you’re 19, you want to leave school and get a job.”
This year, as Depew settles into his new position as director of secondary education at the Hermiston School District, he knows it’s not an unfamiliar story.
According to a report released this summer by the Oregon Department of Education, by the end of 2017 to 2018 school year, just 33.3% of the English Learners (EL) who entered the Hermiston High School in 2013 graduated, compared to the near-65% state average.
“We understand there’s no quick fix with this,” Depew said. “We started asking, ‘What is the hold up? What is the reason these kids aren’t graduating?’”
The answer was, overwhelmingly, a lack of language arts and communications credits. This year, the high school will utilize sheltered communications classes in an effort to get EL students out the door with a diploma.
The classes will be taught by EL-certified teachers, and offered to high schoolers as a way to earn communications credits while also improving their language skills. The classes incorporate a reading intervention program recently instituted by the district at the middle and high school levels, called Read 180.
Kathryn Davis, an English language development teacher at the high school, said it’s a little too soon to tell for sure how the program will impact EL students. But she’s hopeful.
“So far, it’s been wonderful. Behavioral issues have gone down,” she said.
She said the English Language Proficiency Assessment (ELPA) test is one of the only data points where students learning English can see their progress. Read 180, according to Davis, has plenty of data points good for celebrating small successes.
But the institution of sheltered communications classes isn’t all that the district is doing to try graduate EL students. Davis said that the addition of more EL teachers has been a help, and has been important to accommodate the growth that the district sees in students who don’t speak English as their first language.
Loretta Fitterer, the EL Newcomer teacher at Armand Larive Middle School, has seen that growth firsthand.
Last spring, there were 13 middle schoolers in the Newcomer Center program, which is a program for kids who arrive to America and need a language boost before moving onto traditional core classes. This year, there are 26.
This is the first year that middle schoolers and elementary schoolers attending the Newcomer Center will have separate classes.
“The needs developmentally for a middle schooler are much different. It’s easier we separate them and focus,” she said. “I think the need is there, and districts are stepping up.”
Both Fitterer and Davis know first-hand the challenges that students learning English face when it comes to maintaining success at school.
She said that by the time many students reach freshman year, they hate school. They feel stuck in EL, and they are repeatedly failing.
“In my experience,” Davis said, “students who are having a lot of trouble may have been born here in America, but their parents don’t speak English at home. When they show up at kindergarten, they are already at a huge deficit.”
Fitterer said that for many kids, English isn’t just a second language. It might be a third or fourth.
She said that many of her students speak Aztecan dialects at home, attend school in their home countries in Spanish, and arrive at the U.S. to eventually learn English.
If they didn’t get to attend school before coming to the U.S., things will be especially challenging.
Last year, Fitterer had her class write autobiographies. The last part of the assignment was to write out their future goals.
“I saved copies of those assignments. Our kids want to be doctors, lawyers, chefs, teachers. They want to finish high school, they want to finish college,” Fitterer said.