Want to improve NC graduation rates? Support English Learning Students and their teachers

Ginny Clayton

My name is Ginny Clayton and I’m a teacher at Cary High in Wake County. I’ve taught ESL for 12 years.

I don’t need to tell you that English Learners are in need of help. The NC Department of Public Instruction has been tracking data on this group for longer than I’ve been teaching. You know that their graduation rate is lower than that of any other measured group, in some cases far lower.

Allow me to use my experience to breathe some life into these statistics. You have the data, I have the kids in my classroom every day telling and showing me their struggles. They talk about the gangs in their home countries: “My teacher in El Salvador was murdered.” “My cousin’s hand was cut off.” “My father got death threats for prosecuting them.” They tell of surviving sexual assault on a city bus, in a park, in their own home. One boy cries at lunch over FaceTime. His parents on the other side of the world tell him a joke, and he laughs through his tears for their benefit. Another student has recently met his father for the first time in his life. The young man had spent years out of school taking care of his grandparents and running their farm while his father worked here. The boy is barely literate in his first language, but has a sharp mind and a broad vocabulary developed by listening to Bible readings in church. Now he’s here. He and so many others are ready to envision a future for themselves.

But realizing that vision is not easy. I can still picture the way a former student would listen carefully to my lessons while massaging her arms because working so many nights and weekends on a food truck had caused her to develop student painful tendonitis. She had no parents. No financial fallback, no cheerleader. Another was often absent on Mondays and Tuesdays because on weekends he traveled with his father to construction jobs. Upon returning he would always politely request his missing work and stay after school according to teachers’ availability to get caught up. His classmate is also frequently absent because he works nights in a restaurant kitchen, but he’s always ready for his tests because he takes his flashcards to work. He tells me he sits them on the cutting board while he’s prepping veggies. I tell him to please keep at least one eye on the knife. We teachers spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to instill grit into our students, but these kids have already got it, in spades.

Yet sometimes the emotional trauma, the stress, the physical pain and fatigue, hamper that intrinsic drive. They cloud that vision for the future. Which is why we must step up. English Learners need access to counseling in their first language and trauma-informed school personnel. They need to see adults in the school who look like they do. They need teachers trained in best practices for English Learners and class sizes which allow them to build relationships with those teachers. They need a school culture which celebrates and fosters a very enviable skill which they possess: bilingualism!

Since I began incorporating students’ first language into lessons with my newcomers from Central America, I’ve noticed an increase in their reading fluency and confidence. Students love the challenge of translating book chapters, news articles, and song lyrics from English to Spanish and vice versa. They are gaining knowledge in content areas like science and history while at the same time improving vocabulary in both languages. Teaching is all about problem solving, which is why I love this job, and I believe that when we come across good solutions like bilingual instruction we should run with them! Especially when they’re backed by decades of research. Many other strategies have been developed by educators in Wake County and across the state. These strategies deserve a close look and funding to further them where they will be most effective. Leaving some counties with zero supplemental dollars for their English Learner students is not the way to go.

Remember the student with tendonitis? She graduated and is studying to be a nurse. And the student who worked on weekends with his dad? He graduated too, and is studying IT. As for the student who ran his grandparents’ farm, and dreamed of becoming a counselor, he dropped out of school. The burden of making up for lost academic time was too much. A graduation rate of two out of three is close to the state percentage for Limited English Proficient students, and it’s not good enough. I worry over which of my current students will make it. Mr. Flashcards in the kitchen will be a senior next year. Are the supports we have enough to see him through, or will some external obstacle prove too great to overcome? He aspires to be a medical interpreter. Any field chosen by these hardworking, bilingual graduates will certainly benefit from their addition. But guess which job is most commonly cited when I ask my English Learners about career goals: Teacher. Are you seeing the potential here that I am? In this state where we have unprecedented low enrollment in teacher education programs? These students don’t just need us, we need them. But without sufficient support, we’ll lose them.

Ginny Clayton grew up in Raleigh, NC attending Wake County Public Schools. She earned a B.A. in Spanish Literature and M.A.T. in English as a Second Language from UNC Chapel Hill. She has taught ESL for 12 years in the Dominican Republic, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Cary. This is her seventh year at Cary High School, where she specializes in teaching newcomers with interrupted formal education.

Learn more about Educación Sin Barreras NC (Education without Barriers NC) alliance this Thursday as they advocate on behalf of English learning students at the General Assembly. For more info, contact [email protected] or visit them at: https://www.facebook.com/sinbarrerasnc/

To read more about the policies affecting Ginny’s students, see:

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Want to improve NC graduation rates? Support English Learning Students and their teachers