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Minneapolis Sets Sights on Raising Grad Rates for ELL Students

Nathaly Carchi
“My parents would be proud of me because I will make their dreams into reality by receiving an education,” Nathaly Carchi says.”My dreams are big, but I do not think they are impossible.”

This article originally appeared on the America’s Promise Alliance blog on July 11, 2016.

Nathaly Carchi was terrified when she came to Minneapolis from her native Ecuador at 13 years old. She hadn’t seen her mother – who had come to the U.S. nine years earlier – since she was a little girl. Her mother felt like a stranger, and Carchi felt unmoored.

“I started to study in middle school, but I didn’t like it because I didn’t speak English,” says Carchi, now 18. “Kids bullied me and they called me ‘burra,’ which means donkey. I felt really depressed and I always wanted to go back to Ecuador.”

She began to believe she was stupid and ugly. At one point, she even thought about taking her own life. But everything changed when she started atWellstone International High School in Minneapolis, where all the students are recently arrived immigrants.

“The environment was very different than other schools,” says Carchi, a recent graduate. “I started to meet friends and teachers who understood me.”

The Minneapolis public school district is working on several fronts to make sure English-language learners (ELLs) like Carchi feel that graduation and college are part of their futures.

Statewide, the on-time graduation rate for all students was 82 percent in 2015. But the graduation rate for ELLs across the state was just 63 percent. In the city of Minneapolis, the rate for all students that year was 64 percent; for ELLs, just 52 percent.

The double-digit graduation gap for ELLs is a problem facing school systems across the state and the nation. Some – including those affiliated with the GradNation State Activation Initiative – are working together to find the best ways to close it.

Minneapolis Pilots a Variety of New Programs for ELLs

The Minneapolis school district (GradMinneapolis – ELL Focus) is part of GradMinnesota, a statewide initiative led by the Minnesota Alliance With Youth, Minnesota Department of Education and the Office of the Governor that provides resources to districts committed to raising graduation rates. GradMinneapolis held an English Learner Summit in May to shine a light on partnerships that are working to increase school success and graduation rates.

Roughly a fourth of the Minneapolis district’s students are ELLs. Most of these 9,000 students speak Spanish, followed by Somali and Hmong, a language spoken by an ethnic group from parts of China and Southeast Asia.

The district’s ELL students are immigrants and first-generation Americans who often face disrupted family lives, unfamiliar surroundings and poverty. Older students are typically unfamiliar with job or higher education opportunities.

Last year, under the Department of Global Education and Deputy Education Officer Elia Bruggeman, the district convened a task force – which included teachers, parents, students, business leaders and other community members – to recommend how to use $5 million the school district set aside to address challenges faced by ELLs and their families.

With support from that investment, the district is piloting a wide variety of programs. Here are four that show promise.

1. Giving Students a Sense of College

The English Learners Summer College Academy brings rising 11th and 12th graders to Minneapolis Community & Technical College (MCTC) for eight weeks in the summer. They follow a rigorous English for Speakers of Other Languages curriculum and take classes in math and reading, earning both high school and college credit.

The students also receive counseling on how to apply for federal student aid, fill out college applications and search for scholarships.

Carchi, who participated in the program, said studying on a college campus gave her a sense of what college life is like.

“My favorite part of this academy was that I had the chance to meet students from other schools,” says Carchi, adding that the classes helped move her toward college-level English proficiency. “I felt more prepared to go to the new school year.”

Students who participate in the Summer College Academy are able to continue taking courses at MCTC during the school year, spending part of their school days on the college’s campus and continuing to earn dual credits for high school and college.

There are early indications that ELLs who participate in the program are more likely to graduate in four years, instead of five or six.

2. Supporting the Transition to High School

Minneapolis Public Schools teamed up with two local colleges to support ELL students’ transition from middle school to high school, through the Eighth Grade English Learners Mentoring and Leadership Program. The goal is to have students embrace their racial and cultural identities while fostering a desire to succeed in school.

During the weeklong program, started last summer, the students focus on four key themes: aspirations, expectations, opportunities and achievement. Boys and girls meet separately, the boys at the University of St. Thomas and the girls at the University of Minnesota.

Each day begins with a speaker, a role model who was an English learner growing up (such as a teacher, business leader or government official).

Students participate in classroom activities during which they set goals for finishing high school and plan how to achieve those goals. They engage in team-building activities on a ropes course and stress the value of working together through team sports, such as basketball and soccer.

Students also write a reflection on their experience for the day and, through the iLit program, they practice reading. iLit (inspireLiteracy) deals with vocabulary, sentence structure, comprehension, and GRADE total score.

To reach more kids, there are plans to create a school-year version of the program with the University of Minnesota, held twice a month on Fridays – dubbed Fridays are Fantastic.

3. Bringing Families in, Taking Kids to Harvard

The English Learners Operation Graduation program involves several of the school district’s departments – including multilingual, family engagement, college and career readiness, and communications – working together to help ELL students move toward graduation and college and recognize accomplishments.

Parents are invited to workshops where they can learn about what it takes to graduate from high school, how they can help their kids study at home and how they can explore post-secondary opportunities with their kids. There are ELL graduation celebrations, which families attend.

Last year for this program, the school district partnered with Project SUCCESS, a local nonprofit, to bring 40 students on a trip to Harvard University.

Pa Kou Yang, a Hmong refugee who came to the United States from Thailand in 2005, never thought she’d get the chance to visit an Ivy League school.

“I learned that anyone can go to Harvard if you work hard in school,” says Yang, 20 and the youngest of 14 children. In the fall, she’ll start at St. Catherine University, in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“I never forget where I come from because that is what makes me unique,” Yang says. “Education is what will get me to where I am going.”

4. Teaching English Across Subjects to Both ELLs, English Speakers

Known as GLAD, Guided Language Acquisition Design is a model designed to teach ELLs academic English, versus conversational English. Though it targets ELLs, it is designed for the mainstream classroom, where ELLs and native English speakers learn together.

GLAD strategies help ELLs learn both the content and the language, across subjects. Working in pairs and in teams, students create charts and use other visual aids posted to classroom walls to explore topics. Through chants, gestures and interactive lessons, they learn and reinforce words, language and content.

The Minneapolis school district is in the midst of a three-year GLAD pilot, launched during the 2014-2015 school year at select elementary schools with large populations of ELL students.

“Using the GLAD strategies, I have seen an increased level of understanding of vocabulary, use of academic vocabulary orally and in writing and increased engagement from all students,” says Elizabeth Frisby, an elementary school teacher and 23-year veteran of Minneapolis Public Schools.

Lucilla Davila, the district’s associate superintendent of magnet schools, who oversees the GLAD pilot, says the district is noting dramatic state test score increases at some of the schools.

For example, 44 percent of fifth graders at Folwell Performing Arts School, met or exceed the standards for the reading portion of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments this year – up from 27 percent when those students were fourth graders.

Deepening the Commitment to ELL Students

Elia Dimayuga-Bruggeman, deputy education officer at Minneapolis Public Schools, says the district is committed to refining and expanding its ELL programs, looking for opportunities where ELLs and native English speakers can learn together.

“I feel that any strategy we can do for English learners is a good strategy for any student,” she says, adding that the district’s early efforts are already paying off.

Carchi, for one, as a graduate of the district’s Summer College Academy, will know what it’s like to study on campus when she starts at Augsburg College in Minneapolis this fall.

She remembers sleeping on the streets as a girl in Ecuador, sometimes only having a piece of bread to eat for the whole day. Now she’s about to become the first in her family to go to college.

“My parents would be proud of me because I will make their dreams into reality by receiving an education,” Carchi says. “My dreams are big, but I do not think that they are impossible.”


This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to improve them, join the GradNation Learning Community. Just send an email to Eboni-Rose Thompson with your name, email address and organizational affiliation.

To learn more about state-level work to increase graduation rates, check out the GradNation State Activation initiative, a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson, focused on increasing high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.

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