Young children are said to be sponges, able to quickly pick up and become fluent in a new language. But what about the young man who walks into Sullivan High School two months after coming to Chicago from Ethiopia? Or the young woman who shows up at Juarez High who is still struggling to speak English five years after arriving in the U.S.?

Academic progress is often tougher for high school English-language learners, who comprise about 10 percent of all bilingual students in CPS. Educators note that older students face two hurdles: learning to speak a new language while also learning high-school-level academic content.

Even those students who have transitioned out of bilingual programs may have trouble mastering subjects taught in English, educators say.

“It takes five to seven years for a second-language learner to become proficient,” says Kathy Khoshaba, chairperson of the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages/Multilingual Department at Senn High in Edgewater, where 21 percent of students are English learners. “Most of these students don’t have that much time.”

The data available paint a decidedly mixed picture of how high school English learners are faring in CPS.

They are more likely than their peers to be on-track to graduate as freshmen, but those who remain in bilingual programs are less likely to graduate and to enroll in four-year colleges, even if they have a high GPA. And in one CPS survey, high school English learners rated teacher support and safety at their schools lower than their peers did.

A seat at the table

Principals and teachers say high school is where gaps in comprehension between English learners and their peers become most apparent. Diane Zendejas, the new director of the Office of Language and Cultural Education, says the academic difficulties faced by English learners may contribute to high dropout rates among Latinos (who make up 85 percent of bilingual students). As a result, she says bilingual educators should be at the table when the district implements new initiatives aimed at lowering the dropout rate.

There’s also a larger issue, Zendejas adds: What extra support should the district provide for English learners after they transition out of bilingual programs?

“Do we just stop and say ‘Now we are done?'” she says. “Or do we ask, ‘What more do these students need to be successful in the future?’ I am not interested in looking only at high school, but at college, too. Shouldn’t that be our goal?”

There are signs of progress. David Gilligan, chief high school officer for CPS, is a member of the CPS-led Bilingual Education and World Language Commission. And Beatriz Ponce de León, project manager for the commission, says plans are in the works for a focus group with high school bilingual teachers to find out what is happening with programs.

Paula Stewart, a National Board-certified bilingual lead teacher at Juarez, says the challenges high schools face with bilingual students are not unique. High schools usually don’t have the resources to deal with any student who can’t read well or is performing way below grade level.

Sometimes Stewart has a student who is struggling, but it’s unclear if the problem stems from language difficulties or other needs. “We just feel like we are scrambling to figure out what this child needs,” she says.

At times, Stewart will let students continue to take classes in their native language throughout high school, though she warns parents that their child will graduate without becoming proficient in English. Sometimes, Juarez teachers who speak Spanish will have to modify the curriculum for students who are still learning English.

A small number of high school English learners were in their first year of bilingual education in 2006, suggesting they were newcomers to the country. Some of these students may have attended school in their home country, while others are refugees from war-torn lands and haven’t been to school in years, says Bertha Magaña, executive director of the Latino Education Alliance, which recruits teenagers who have been in the U.S. for a while to act as peer tutors to newcomers.

“High schools all assume that elementaries should have done the work,” Magaña says. “But what happens when there was no elementary school or the elementary school had the student for less than a year?”

Overall, Magaña suspects a lack of English skills is not the root cause of school failure among English learners, but adds to it. “If they are not doing well in school, they might not see a point to staying, and see more meaning in getting a job.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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