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Graduation rates for ELL students lag far behind

English language learners among the groups that struggle most in Lake Oswego and statewide

BECKLake Oswego School District has one of the highest overall graduation rates in the state, but recently released data indicate that English language learners are lagging far behind.

Overall, the district recorded a four-year graduation rate of 91 percent last year — among the highest in a state where just 74 percent of all students earned a high school diploma in four years. But only 66.7 percent of the district’s English language learners graduated in four years, according to figures released in January by the Oregon Department of Education.

Superintendent Heather Beck says she understands why ELLs are struggling, and she told The Review that the district has been working to find solutions.

“Imagine you are trying to meet a goal, which let’s say is graduating in four years from high school,” Beck said. “Imagine doing this in China, where you do not speak the language and you have not already learned the content. These students are not only having to learn challenging course material and content, but they are also having to do it in a language they are simultaneously learning.”

The problem is not unique to Lake Oswego. Statewide, just 51.2 percent of English language learners graduate in four years, according to the latest ODE data. Even in the highly rated West Linn-Wilsonville District, where the overall graduation rate is 92.5 percent, only 57.1 percent of ELL students graduate with their four-year cohort.

“Their learning curve is steep and taxing, as students with ELL needs are learning two subjects at the same time,” Beck said. “They have twice the challenges in mastering the academic content in the same amount of time as every other student.”

Nearly 69 percent of English language learners graduated in four years in 2013-14 in the Lake Oswego School District, so the problem isn’t new. In fact, LOSD administrators, teachers and volunteers have all been working to address the problem for years.

“We have a strong ELL teaching team that works very hard to meet the needs of all students,” Beck said. “In addition to ELL support classes, we train our teachers to use ELL strategies with language learners and we offer individual academic support. However, one of the key factors that these students need is time — time to learn English, time to learn course content, and time to acclimate to our culture and expectations.”

Natasha Beeler, one of three ELL teachers split among the district’s 10 schools, agrees that keys to students’ success are their age and level of English proficiency upon arriving in the U.S. Beeler, who teaches English language learners at Oak Creek Elementary and Lake Oswego Junior High, says a younger student simply has more time to establish English skills.

“It takes five to seven years or longer to learn a language,” she said, “and the last form they learn is the written form. That can be a real challenge as we think about how teachers and students communicate, especially in advanced grades. They use email. So the hardest (form of the language) to learn and to master is the one they (use to) communicate the most.”

The district’s secondary-school ELL programs meet at Lake Oswego Junior High or Lake Oswego High, depending on grade level; students who attend Lakeridge Junior High or Lakeridge High are bused to the classes, where students take vocabulary lessons and also work on spelling, reading and writing. Students also hear announcements about any changes to the school day and about upcoming events. Students receive homework help not at their ELL classes but during study hall, and there are high school volunteers who support students as well.

Beeler said ELL is a “great, great population to work with,” and that she admires the kids and parents. Many ELL families are Asian, she said, hailing from China, Japan and South Korea. But no matter where they come from, often the parents don’t speak English at all — and that adds another layer of complexity to a student’s academic life, Beeler said.

School expectations and requirements may be unclear with no one inside the home to explain them to a student, she said. A parent also may not be able to help a student with homework. Yet many parents strive to learn the language themselves so that they can offer more help, Beeler said, and teachers and volunteers offer as much support as they can. The school recently released an announcement about English classes to take at Portland Community College.

On top of being new to the language and potentially lacking parental support, students in the district face another problem that might be harder to address: LOSD is not a place where a student can coast all the way to commencement.

“Lake Oswego School District has amazing schools, and they have really high academic rigor and expectations,” Beeler said. “So it’s difficult.”

Though the ELL rate decreased more than two percentage points from 2013-14 to last year, Lake Oswego School District’s average four-year graduation ticked up by 1 percentage point to 91 percent in the 2014-15 school year, and the state’s average rate rose by 2 percentage points. The five-year grad rate for LOSD was 92 percent, also a 1 percent rise over 2013-14.

Still, Beck noted that “there is always more work to be done.”

“Our goal is to have a graduation rate of 100 percent, and to provide each student with a future filled with options and choices,” Beck said. “This means continued focus on the individual student, pinpointing student needs based on the student’s achievement results we have for each child, expanding interventions and developing multiple pathways to success that will empower every student to walk across the stage and receive a diploma in June.”

Interventions involve a group of adults, such as teachers and other specialists, who step in to provide a student with additional support, depending on what each student needs. Risk factors, including “poor attendance, failing grades, low test scores, peer problems or anti-social behaviors,” help the district pinpoint whether an intervention is needed, Beck explained.

“Early interventions are critical in order to keep students on track to graduate,” she said. “If we want to increase our graduation rate, we should be developing interventions in grade school.”

By Jillian Daley
503-636-1281, ext. 109
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