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   High School » High School Commission Report » HS for 21st Century- English Learners
  Chapter Three  

English Learners

When I became a high school teacher, I took my responsibility very seriously. I believed then, and I do now, that I was paid to teach, and that meant it was my responsibility to help every one of my students learn. I believe it’s impossible to claim you have taught, when there are students who have not learned.”
John Wooden,

Legendary basketball coach

English Learners make up a significant number of students in Ventura County schools, and their numbers are growing each year.

WestEd, a nonprofit research, development and education service agency, estimates that ten percent of twelfth graders statewide are English Learners. Countywide in 2005-06, there were 29,314 English Learners – ninety-five percent of them Spanish-speaking – attending Ventura County schools. Of that number, 5,563 were high school students.

One of the most important jobs we have as educators is to teach our English Learners. It is especially true for our high schools since English Learners run the highest risk of falling behind in class and receiving failing grades. Only three percent of tenth grade English learners scored “proficient” on the 2006 California Standards Test in English and just half of eleventh grade English Learners had passed the California High School Exit Exam.

Most distressing of all, English Learners today are three times more likely to drop out than English proficient students because our schools are not meeting their diverse needs. We must reverse this trend.

But fixing the problem will require a significant commitment on all our parts. According to a 2006 report by Norm Gold and Julie Maxwell-Jolly of the University of California’s Linguistic Minority Research Institute, five myths stand in the way of the educational changes needed for English Learners to thrive in our state’s high schools. The LMRI also offers recommendations on what schools can do to address the myths.

Myth No. 1:  English Learners bring nothing to the table except need.

:  English Learners come to high schools with assets that often go unrecognized.

These assets include their prior schooling, skills in non-English languages, life experiences, bilingual and bicultural capacities and their school heritage. These assets can form the foundation on which schools can build additional knowledge and skills.


  • Inventory prior education and seek to recognize competencies and standards students may have met through non-traditional means.
  • Assess competence in the student’s primary language needs, and validate this competence as meeting second language (foreign language) high school graduation and college entrance requirements.
  • Provide education programs that take advantage of students’ language and cultural competencies, making these learning assets.
Myth No. 2:  English Language Development is all English Learners need.

Truth:  ELD is only part of what English Learners need.

English Learners also need a foundation of habits, competencies and attitudes that will allow them to meet the same broad educational goals of all students, as well as the knowledge and skills that will help them have productive academic and work lives.

  • Articulate a complete program for English Learners that includes diagnosis of both language and academic needs, followed by a program of instruction to meet those needs. This includes providing coherent, sustained instruction in the primary language of students, whenever possible.
  • Plan for full integration of English Learners with all other students and establish daily and weekly routines to ensure that this happens.
  • Promote a school-wide focus on languages (both the primary language and English) as important tools for learning.
Myth No. 3:  The current approach to the calendar and clock is sacred.

Truth:  Time is the most precious resource and the greatest lever we can apply to improving schools.

English Learners need time to master grade level content, learn English and reconcile differences between the school systems in the U.S. from their home country school systems. In addition to school, many English Learners also must manage a double or triple-load of work as well take on heavy family responsibilities.

  • Expand the time provided for high school to five years or more for English Learners who need and want it.
  • Expand the school day to be more responsive to the personal and economic realities of students’ lives. A campus could be scheduled for classes and independent study for hours well beyond those currently available to better meet students’ work, internship and apprentice schedules.
Myth No. 4:  High school must take place in a building called “High School.”

Truth:  Education can take place outside of high school walls.

High school may be the most appropriate place for the majority of our students to receive their education, especially newcomers who need to be part of a school community. But different students have different needs, and all learning doesn’t have to take place in the school building itself.

  • Design course delivery that is flexible around the needs of the community, such as evening classes, classes in the community, televised classes and online coursework.

  • Explore how English Learners might take advantage of local community colleges while they are still in high school, allowing for a combination of vocational and academic needs.
  • Allow – and even encourage – students to challenge entry into a course that they may have completed in their home country, even if they have not met language or academic prerequisites.
Myth No. 5:  Secondary education has only one worthwhile goal and a single best path to completion.

Truth: High schools should broaden the kinds of opportunities they offer all students, but English Learners in particular.

All students should have the opportunity to pursue a college preparation path if they desire, but according to recent projections, less than forty percent of jobs in California’s future economy will require a four-year college degree. Schools should provide multiple pathways and options leading to success for students who do not choose to attend college. Such a direction could lead to better outcomes for many English Learners.

  • Make curriculum and performance standards for success part of an individual plan for English Learners, so that students, parents and teachers understand each individual’s goals and time line for reaching them.

  • Provide a real opportunity for all students to choose a college path by reducing the barriers to college attendance for English Learners and other under-represented groups, such as additional time to satisfy college entrance standards.
  • Promote courses of study that are routes to high paying jobs, many of which do not require attendance at a four-year college.
There are things all teachers can do to help our English Learners. The most important thing is to get to know them. Find out their family situation. Ask them questions. How many family members do they have, and is English spoken in the home? Do they have the time and the space to do homework? Do they have to work to help support the family? What are their interests? Have they been out of school for a significant period of time?

It’s critical that teachers reach out to their English Learners. It lets them know that you care and builds trust. Students who trust their teachers become better prepared and more open to learn.

And when teachers implement particular high-quality instructional methods consistently and systematically with English Learners, their academic achievement improves. MaryEllen Vogt is professor emerita of education at California State University, Long Beach, with a special interest in English Learners. She offers the following instructional methods that have been found to improve English Learner achievement:
  • Content lessons that incorporate both content and language objectives serve as the focus for lesson design and implementation, and during lessons, students read, write, listen and speak English.
  • Classrooms that are organized with small-group and partner work help English Learners and other students interact frequently with peers and the teacher to develop English proficiency.
  • Academic language – language used in classrooms that is different from everyday spoken language in social interactions – that is taught relative to all subject areas.
  • Supplementary materials, such as photos, illustrations and demonstrations that are used to a high degree to make the content information comprehensible.
  • Meaningful activities that are selected to support lesson objectives, link to students’ background knowledge and past learning, develop English vocabulary, promote higher-order thinking skills and provide hands-on application of newly learned knowledge.
  • Frequent feedback that is provided during lessons so that the teacher can monitor content leaning and reteach content and language objectives when necessary.
English Learners, of course, aren’t the only ones who benefit from improved instruction; all our students do. In fact, we all do. Research shows that immigrants who improve their English have higher earnings, more job opportunities and pay more taxes.

“Failure of (English Learner) programs will haunt the state, its economy and its governance processes for generations,” said David Lyon, president of the San Francisco-based, nonpartisan Public Policy Institute, which released a study of English Learners in California in 2005.

“We often fear that California faces a future of large numbers of low-income families mired in a first-world economy,” Lyon wrote.

Failure to properly educate English Learners, who represent a quarter of the state’s future work-force, will not just cripple California’s economy, Lyon asserts, it will strike at the pocketbook of every retiree banking on Social Security and social welfare systems fueled by a younger generation’s earning power.

What Can I Do?

To ensure that all English Learners gain the maximum benefit from 21st Century high schools, we recommend the following:

School Board Members:

  • Appoint board member to state’s English Language Advisory Committee and the
    District English Language Advisory Committee.
  • Provide a forum for parental information and concerns.
  • Develop policies for community involvement.
  • Develop strategies for effective learning and teaching.
  • Develop policies for professional development in English learner strategies.
  • Develop policies for reasonable class sizes for English learners.
Superintendents and Assistant Superintendents:
  • Review graduation policies and procedures.
  • Develop multimedia presentations for parent meetings.
  • Provide curricula to teachers for optimal performance.
  • Assess level of English learner needs.
  • Promote developmental assets.
  • Support professional development of teachers of English learners. 
  • Provide cultural awareness training.
  • Ensure that community meetings are in English and Spanish.
  • Ensure mainstreaming access to all programs.
  • Provide time for teachers to know background of students.
  • Change the school day to accommodate the needs of all students.
  • Take district data to implement effective and relevant learning strategies.
  • Provide cultural awareness training annually.
  • Provide before- and after-school interventions.
  • Make on-line tutorials available during school hours.
Teachers and Counselors:
  • Strengthen SDAIE training.
  • Form partnerships with parents.
  • Contact parents for periodic meetings and request a translator, if necessary.
  • Provide differentiated instruction.
  • Provide counselors trained to work with English learners.
  • Receive training in English learner teaching strategies and diagnostic data assessment techniques.
  • Get involved in school activities.
  • Make meaningful connections with adults on campus.
  • Choose good role models and choose friends carefully.
  • Take your work seriously.
  • Do assignments.
  • Challenge yourself by taking the most rigorous courses possible.
  • Come ready to learn.
  • Encourage children’s involvement in school activities.
  • Ensure proper supervision of children.
  • Ask children about school and work daily.
  • Participate in children’s learning.
  • Get involved at the school and district levels.
  • Push for the development of Web-based grading and attendance systems that are available to all parents.
Business Community:
  • Offer English learners part-time jobs.
  • Provide internship opportunities.
  • Provide connection to junior college opportunities.
  • Darling - Hammond, L., Rustique - Forrester, E., &Pecheone, R. (2005). Multiple measures approaches to high school graduation. Stanford, CA: School Redesign Network.
  • Fry, R. (2003, March). “Hispanic youth dropping out of U.S. schools: Measuring the challenge”, Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.

  • Gold, N., and Maxwell-Jolly, J. (2006). The High Schools English Learners Need. Report prepared for the University of California’s Linguistic Minority Research Institute. For complete report online, visit www.lmri.ucsb.edu/publications/06_gold.pdf.
  • Martin, P., Houtchens, B., Ramirez, M., & Seidner, M. (2003, October). High school reform and English language learner students: Perspectives from the field. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.

  • National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/resabout/ells/

  CAHSEE Results  
View a chart and graph of CAHSEE pass rates for EL students in 2004/05 and 2005/06
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