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Six months ago, 16-year-old Jeffrey Flores arrived in Fort Worth with his family not knowing a word of English, but knowing it would be one of the first things to face in his new country.
“It’s important that I learn English to have a good job,” said Flores in Spanish.
Flores is one of some one million students in Texas – roughly 20% of the state’s 5.4 million public school students – who are enrolled in ESL classes. He and his two siblings attend the Fort Worth Independent School District International Newcomer Academy, which is designed for students who are new to the country and need to learn English.
Students like Flores and her siblings are not alone on their journey. Each year more and more people of color, especially Hispanics, come to Texas, with nearly 2 million more Hispanics making their home in Texas over the past decade, according to the 2020 census. Texans of color as a whole accounted for 95% of the state’s population growth.
So the importance of teaching non-English speaking children has never been greater.
But the pandemic threatens what was initially a fragile area of education. A recent pre-pandemic study from Rice University suggests that Texas is degrading in teaching English to students, impacting both their academic success and their potential lifetime income.
Statewide, researchers have found that the number of English learners who have failed to master the language after five years of ESL instruction is on the rise. The study followed students who entered first year between 2000 and 2015 to see if they would become proficient – roughly, ESL graduates – by the time they reach fifth year. Those who did not were labeled “long-term English learners”.
For several years, the number of long-term English learners has remained stable. But this started to increase after 2008. In the 2014-15 school year, nearly 7 in 10 students who started first year as English learners in Texas public schools did not managed to become proficient within five years.
Children should be fluent in English by grade five, as this leaves enough time for the procedure, said researcher Lizzy Cashiola.
“At first, the study shows that children who don’t graduate and who are likely to start college as an English learner are much more likely to drop out, they are much more likely to keep a grade in school. high school and they’re much less likely to graduate on time, ”Cashiola said.
Researcher Daniel Potter said they had not identified the exact reason for the significant increase in the number of students who do not graduate from ESL, but noted that factors include the lack of funding, teacher shortages and where students live.
“I don’t know if at this point you’re going to identify a quick fix,” Potter said. “It’s a multi-faceted problem. Now, even after saying that, I don’t mean that there is nothing we can do.
But again, this path to progress is complicated by school interruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Potter and Cashiola don’t yet know the full extent of the pandemic’s effect on English learners, but they know it hasn’t improved matters.
“The school may have been one of the few spaces where these students have been exposed to a predominantly English environment, and COVID has completely evaporated that space,” Potter said.
Cashiola said second-graders starting this fall might have an easier time catching up on the learning they’ve lost, but it might be more difficult for those who are older and about to retrain.
It’s no secret that the shift to e-learning and the uncertainty brought by the pandemic has impacted students and resulted in skills gaps, especially for poorer students and students. students of color.
Faiha Al-Atrash, parent coordinator at the International Newcomers Academy, said the past year has been a huge challenge for the children at the school, as in-person learning is crucial for students who are new. in the country and who are learning the language.
“The teacher talks to them, they see their reaction [and] see if they really got it, ”Al-Atrash said.
Teachers have encountered several issues with virtual learning, such as students not logging into their computers or logging in without paying attention. The distractions brought on by the pandemic have taken a toll on student learning and children’s ability to remember information, she said. Parents of ESL students are also unable to help their children because they do not know the language. It was a problem before, but the pandemic made it worse, especially if parents couldn’t navigate the tech.
Flores’ father, Jorge Flores Gutierrez, said in Spanish that he could not help his son with his homework and that attending classes in person was the best way for his son to learn the language because he is able to practice speaking with others.
Lotus Hoey, an ESL teacher at Pershing Middle School in Houston, said returning to face-to-face classes this fall has been the most difficult for her English learners. They’ve been offline for over a year, and it’s clear that not having a structure has eroded their English skills.
“They don’t have the stamina because they’ve been in bed learning in their pajamas,” Hoey said.
Hoey said she and her colleagues are just trying to go slower with the kids so they can catch up.
Ovidia Molina, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said skills attainment issues during that five-year window can be tracked before the pandemic.
An ESL teacher for 11 years, she felt there was pressure for these children to take a test instead of giving thoughtful instructions to help them succeed.
“I taught seventh and eighth graders, my seventh and eighth graders were in first and second grades,” she said. “There is no way we can move them from the first and second year level to the seventh year level.”
Molina says ESL programs need more funding, smaller classes, and goals that shouldn’t depend on passing a test.
Earlier this year, Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 560. The measure calls on educators to develop a more strategic plan to improve bilingual education by looking for ways to increase the number of bilingual teachers and bilingual programs, and bring in educators with better ways to identify students. that must be registered.
David Feigen, policy associate for Texans Care For Children, said bilingual programs, where students learn both in their native language and in English, need to increase, as students who participate in these programs tend to do better on the school plan. Only 1 in 5 English learners are enrolled in such programs.
Before the pandemic, only 1 in 12 bilingual students were college-ready by the time they graduated, Feigen said. The pandemic threatens to make matters worse if this law does not materialize.
Feigen said giving these students a quality education will help not only them but the state as well, as a bilingual workforce is a valuable part of society.
In the next legislative session, lawmakers must have a plan and a timetable to carry out what the law is supposed to do. Feigen said that for things to move forward, it is imperative that Texas recruit, retain and develop bilingual teachers.
“Texas is a bilingual state,” he said. “We are a state that welcomes immigrants from different origins. “
More bilingual teachers are badly needed, said Andy Canales, Texas executive director at Latinos for Education. Canales said having more teachers of color improves learning for ESL students. He also pointed out that the pandemic has revealed how important economic inequalities play in successful learning.
Many English learners live in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and may not have access to after-school programs and other learning opportunities that others have, he said.
“As a society, we need to figure out how to give our most vulnerable students access to enrichment and learning opportunities,” Canales said.
Disclosure: Rice University, Texans Care for Children, and Texas State Teachers Association financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial support plays no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list of them here.