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.”
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.”