Minnesota students learning English face an uphill battle, but innovations are helping

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 26, 2013 - 9:38 PM

Concerned about a drop in scores, Minnesota schools are trying innovative ways to help students struggling with the language.

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Classroom teacher Stacy Krohn, left, helps second-grader Maya Burns with a science content writing exercise as ESL teacher Anne Hillman, standing right, helps ELL student Monika Pichardo in Krohn's second and third grade split classroom at Sheridan Hills Elementary School in Richfield October 25, 2013. (Courtney Perry/Special to the Star Tribune) ORG XMIT: MIN1310251605222727

Photo: Courtney Perry • Special to the Star Tribune,

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“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.

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  • Classroom teacher Stacy Krohn, left, raises a hand to draw attention forward as ESL teacher Anne Hillman keeps an eye on the back of the room in Krohn's second and third grade split classroom at Sheridan Hills Elementary School in Richfield October 25, 2013. (Courtney Perry/Special to the Star Tribune) ORG XMIT: MIN1310251605242729

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