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Language is a key factor in graduation rates

Local systems’ numbers show disparity between English learners, other student groups

POSTED: December 22, 2013 12:24 a.m.

Recently released data shows some groups of students continue to struggle to graduate in four years, despite overall rates increasing for both Hall County and Gainesville City school systems. 

In Gainesville, 47.9 percent of English language learners graduated in four years; 57.2 percent of them in Hall. The Gainesville four-year graduation rate overall was 70.1 percent for 2013. In Gainesville, the rate was 77.5 percent. 

According to Cindy Tu, Hall’s interim English to speakers of other languages coordinator, the language barrier is the biggest problem in moving students through high school in four years. 

“I just know some of them had come to this country when they’re already in 10th grade or 11th grade,” Tu said. “It’s just really, really hard for them to be able to attain English proficiency and pass those End of Course Tests as well.”

Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer agreed.

“It is not uncommon for a student to come to us when they’re 17 or 18, and they want to finish high school but they don’t have enough credits to get through even in any reasonable amount of time,” Dyer said. “(Those students) are coming from other states primarily, and a few other countries.”

Most of the students are native Spanish speakers.

“There seems to be an influx overall of immigrants (from Somalia) in Georgia,” Dyer continued, saying only a few Somalians have made their way to Gainesville but several are settling in places like Gwinnett County and Dalton. “(They move) wherever there’s industry that needs labor. And that is really presenting a challenge because there are so many dialects and languages in Africa.”

To combat those challenges, schools are providing more resources to get students of all backgrounds on that four-year graduation track. The traditional examples include after-school tutoring and summer-school courses; high schools have also hired graduation coaches to keep students on track. In Hall County, Tu said there are classes they call “sheltered” for students with language barriers.

“(They’re) what we call ESOL courses that are designed for English learners to get the content,” she explained. “The class sizes are smaller and the teachers have to be certified to teach English learners, so they can present the material in a more comprehensible way.”

The classes are aimed to present lessons in a way to help students pass End of Course Tests, the state-mandated exams all students must take. They serve the purpose of a final exam and count as 20 percent of a student’s final grade in the class.

There’s also an outreach program alerting parents and guardians if a student is at risk of not graduating.

“It makes sure they are aware of after-school opportunities or tutoring opportunities,” Tu said. “We design the parent outreach programs to help them see the graduation track and understand the different tests.”

While a language barrier is problematic, another key component is those students who are economically disadvantaged. The state breaks that subgroup out, but it’s composed of students from all the other groups; a student is placed there if he or she qualifies for the free and reduced lunch program. For example, an Asian student who qualified for the free lunch program would count in both the Asian subgroup and the economically disadvantaged subgroup.

“The challenge for everyone is when a student needs more help because of their circumstances,” Dyer said. “Circumstances that poverty presents like a lack of vocabulary, lack of early enrichment. It really does go back to their early years. It often takes longer for them to get through the school process, and the four-year (graduation rate) does not allow for that.”

But, she added, lack of academic progress is more dependent on whether it’s a case of generational poverty or not. Sometimes it’s all in a student’s perception.

“The Hispanic students are the second generation born in this country, and the perception of poverty to them is not the same,” Dyer said. “They have a better opportunity than their parents did, so even though their income level may be the same as someone who’s lived in the country ... their perception is they’re upwardly mobile.

“The negative impacts of generational poverty are hopelessness, not planning ahead and just feeling victimized by the system,” she continued. “While the Hispanic students, fewer of them have that because they’re the first generation raised in the U.S. and their lives are improved over their parents’ life.”

Both Tu and Dyer said increasing graduation rates for all students must start before high school. The process of keeping students on track really begins in middle school.

“I hope over time (the graduation rate data) will help us make better decisions to be more purposeful, to use every minute, to be sure that students are in classes they need to prepare for high school before they get to that point,” Dyer said. “That is what I hope happens over time.”


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