“Yes, we’re concerned about their performance,” said Jennifer Dugan, the Minnesota Department of Education’s testing director.

Improving the academic performance of English language learners is imperative if the state wants to achieve its goal of cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017 — a pledge spelled out in the waiver Minnesota received from the U.S. Department of Education that unshackled it from the mandates of No Child Left Behind.

Some Minnesota schools have found innovative ways to help students who are struggling to learn English. In general, those schools have emphasized what bilingual students bring to the classroom, broken down barriers between general classroom teachers and English-as-a-second-language teachers, and involved parents by embracing cultural diversity.

At Sheridan Hills Elementary in Richfield, for example, the gap between white students and students learning English shrank so dramatically this year that it helped the school shed a low-performance designation.

Still, educators acknowledge the inherent challenges in teaching some students who are learning English, particularly those who are new to the United States.

“Many students come to school multilingual, with these rich oral traditions,” said Kendall King, a University of Minnesota professor who studies second-language learning and bilingualism. “Yet many don’t have formal schooling, and may not be proficient in English or in academic language. It’s a huge challenge.”

Tests can mask success

Educating Minnesota’s population of English language learners has always been difficult for schools. Unlike some states, Minnesota is home to a diverse mix of students learning English, many of whom are refugees from countries where education is frequently interrupted by war. Many are poor and have changed schools multiple times since arriving in the United States.

In Minneapolis public schools, for example, more than 90 languages are spoken by students, slightly less than half of all the languages spoken in Minnesota schools.

“Our English language learners do very challenging work” said Jana Hilleren, executive director of the district’s multilingual department. “Learning content is challenging, and learning a new language is challenging.”

Teachers say many students new to the United States often have very good conversational English. But academic language — which helps with understanding concepts like plot, themes and patterns — is often lagging.

“People can get fooled by conversational fluency,” said Susan Ranney of the Minnesota Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (MinneTESOL). “Academic language is much more complex and takes more time to learn. And it’s much more crucial to pick up.”

Three years ago, Minnesota joined World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA), a consortium of 33 states that use the same English proficiency standards and assessments.

WIDA has “given us a common language,” said Jane Riordan, English language and family involvement coordinator for the Columbia Heights School District. “Now, when I get the records from another district, I know how to help that child.”

School administrators and teachers generally agree that those assessments do a much better job of informing them about how students are faring than most standardized tests.

Since Minnesota defines English language learners as having limited proficiency, only struggling students are counted in that group on the MCAs.

“Let’s say you’re a Somali student who is doing great and has exited the English as a Second Language program; you’re not counted,” said Ranney, who is a lecturer at the University of Minnesota. “If you just look at the test scores, you won’t see progress and success.”

Finding success

While helping students master English can be difficult, many schools are finding success.

At Northfield High School south of the Twin Cities, graduation rates for Latino students have risen from 36 to 92 percent over almost 10 years.

There, school leaders have implemented a number of initiatives — intensive, focused instruction for kindergarten students, co-teaching and the Tackling Obstacles and Raising College Hopes (TORCH) program, which provides one-on-one tutoring and mentoring.

“We’ve got a tremendously strong Hispanic community here, but we noticed that a significant number of them, particularly young women, were dropping out of school and going to work because they needed the money,” said Anne Maple, a Northfield school board member. “That’s how it started, but over time, I think everyone in our district, particularly our students, have really come to embrace being bilingual. It’s just amazing to see.”

Placing a value on being bilingual is critical for schools who want to help their students learn English, said Hector Garcia, director of the state’s Chicano Latino Affairs Council.

And by doing so, they can help all students, he said, citing research that shows how learning a new language helps to foster brain development.

“It’s going to call for a paradigm shift,” Garcia said. “In this global economy, English is not the only important language. Being bilingual is an asset. It’s something most companies recognize.”

Richfield Public Schools received almost $800,000 in federal stimulus money and decided to spend it on training all of its classroom teachers in effective strategies working with English language learners.

The idea, said Kate Trewick, Richfield’s chief of staff and curriculum director, was for all classroom teachers to begin thinking of themselves as language teachers, even if that wasn’t their subject area.

“Having our teachers work together, making sure they shared the responsibility of helping our English language learners, was absolutely critical,” she said.

Not ‘separate or different’

While all of Richfield’s schools have seen improvements, one school in particular, Sheridan Hills Elementary, has made tremendous strides.

Partly because of the improved performance of its English language learners, many of whom are Hispanic, the state Department of Education dropped the “Priority” designation it had given the school. That designation meant the school wasn’t doing enough to close the achievement gap and heaped further stigma upon its teachers and students.

Anne Hillman, a Sheridan Hills English-as-a-second-language teacher, said her colleagues have been very supportive of the district’s co-teaching strategy.

“Our students should not feel separate or different,” said Hillman, who is a native Danish speaker. “They should feel part of the classroom. I feel that way.”