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A Quarter of Connecticut's English-Language Learners Drop Out of High School

Dec 7, 2015

Connecticut students who learn English as a second language drop out of high school at a rate higher than any other New England state, according to an analysis by the New England Secondary School Consortium

Nearly a quarter of English language learners drop out of high school before graduation. This number has been about the same for the last three years, the consortium reported. 

Madeleine Golda, program director for the English as a Second Language program at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, said the problem stems from lack of support for students in their native tongue. 

"Connecticut, unfortunately, stands out as one of the worst states in the entire nation for the performance of second language learners," Golda said. "When you're performing in your second language, and you're learning in your second language, and you're trying to survive in your second language -- when stress goes up, the processing of your second language reduces."

This has a direct impact on learning, and a student's confidence, Golda said.

Golda learned several languages through the public school system in her native country of Ireland. But in the United States -- and in Connecticut, especially -- dual language programs simply aren't the norm. 

"If we have a bilingual system present in the school, where the student can do some learning in their first language, it's extremely helpful for those students," Golda said.

Drop out rates for high schoolers in Connecticut, in orange, compared to other New England states.
Credit New England Secondary School Consortium

There are other complications within the public school system that could be contributing to the high dropout rate. English language learners, or ELLs, who have a learning disability might not ever get identified, because the disability is often perceived as a language problem, Golda said. 

But some progress has been made. Over the last five years, the percentage of ELLs identified for special education services has increased by over 36 percent -- over seven times the rate of growth among other students, according to the State Department of Education.

Today, there are more ELL students in special education than the statewide average -- about six percentage points higher.

Additionally, more ELL students are identified as having a "specific learning disability" (which means they are likely dyslexic) than other students, state data show. Because dyslexia deals with a difficulty reading, educators could be confusing an actual disability with an inability to grasp the English language, according to researchers Michael W. Dunn and Trenia Walker.

From their book, Helping English Language Learners Succeed in Middle and High Schools:

Theoretically, an ELL could participate in middle and high school programming for six years and not know if he or she has [a learning disability] until adulthood — long after the opportunity for public school remediation has passed. 

Therefore, it is imperative to define at the earliest point in a student’s life whether special education services are needed while allowing for typical language difficulties that ELLs face.

Some districts, such as Stamford, have robust dual language programs, but most do not. Golda said simple acts, such as giving a student a book to read that was written in that student's native language, can make a big difference. 

Credit New England Secondary School Consortium.

Even though many English language learners drop out of high school, some end up graduating and going to college, the consortium found. And those students actually stay in school at the same rate as native English speakers.

Golda suggested that might be because some colleges require English remediation classes before basic academic courses can be taken.

The New England Secondary School Consortium is funded in part by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which also supports WNPR's education reporting initiative.