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Why New York City English Language Learners Struggle to Graduate

CAT SMITH, HOST: In New York City Public Schools more than one in ten students are trying to learn English. They’re called English Language Learners, or ELLs. But nearly a quarter of ELL students, drop out of school. Arcelia Martin reports on why ELLs struggle to succeed.

ARCELIA MARTIN, BYLINE: Today, Jessica Valencia is wrapping up her last semester at John Jay College. But getting here was an uphill fight. She came to New York. from Guerrero, Mexico and became an English Second Language student at the High School of World Cultures in The Bronx. Her first assignment was to write about Harry Potter.

JESSICA VALENCIA: How I'm going to write about Harry Potter during my first week, I, I only know how to say one, two, three, four in English and spell my name maybe...

MARTIN: Things didn’t improve much from there. In Valencia’s senior year she transferred to Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, where she passed a standard English proficiency test and was taken out of the ESL classes.

VALENCIA: And then they throw me to the regular English class because I pass. But I.

MARTIN: Why do you put air quotes?

VALENCIA: Because I never really spoke the language.

MARTIN: She credits her success on sheer tenacity. Without it, she knows how easy it is to fall through the cracks. The Division of Multilingual Learners from the New York City Department of Education didn’t respond to questions about ELL students’ retention rates.

But when you ask experts why almost a quarter of ELL students in New York dropped out last year, they give you a laundry list of reasons.

Three issues rise to the top: a lack of cultural diversity in school programs, communication issues, and poverty. Marilyn Mendoza is the education justice organizer with Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group. She says its important for course materials to relate to students own life experiences.

MARILIYN MENDOZA: New York City is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and it's not being reflected in what our students are learning. So students disengage.

MARTIN: In the ELL program, as students score higher on the standard proficiency test, their language instruction is cut back.. Aixa Rodriguez has been teaching ESL students for nearly two decades. She says this makes sense for basic written language, but it also means students have less time to polish up their conversation skills. So many students, she says, just don’t feel comfortable speaking up in class.

AIXA RODRIGUEZ: You're not going to feel confident if you never been taught how to tell an anecdote in a joke, how to give a speech.

MARTIN: And when your classmates are unforgiving, it doesn’t make it easier.

VALENCIA: sometimes other like students, they will make fun of you. Like, it happened to me.

MARTIN: ELLs are more likely to come from low-income families. Which means many students work. Jessica Valencia says some of her classmates on top of being students, were family breadwinners.

VALENCIA: I mean, you have to survive somehow. So they choose to work instead of learning another language and going to school.

MARTIN: It’s a choice Valencia gets.

VALENCIA: They are not learning, they’re tired and they don't even feel confident about it and they don't feel welcome.

MARTIN: Of the people I talked to, many said English learners would do better in the schools if there were more ELL faculty and staff. And that a re-written curriculum would also help.

The New York State’s Education Department website says schools are now examining and addressing their practices and programs to improve graduation rates among ELL students.

Arcelia Martin, Columbia Radio News.


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