Addressing the Achievement Gap in Nebraska

Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan speaks at an event in Omaha.
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July 17, 2018 - 6:45am

English Language Learners in public schools around the country graduate at much lower rates than all other students. NPR recently came to that conclusion in a review of state by state data from the US Department of Education. The findings in Nebraska are similar to the national data. 

With 30 years of experience in education, Omaha Public Schools superintendent Cheryl Logan asked a group at a recent event to picture a couple of kids in school -- students she used to illustrate her commitment to making sure each student gets the most from their public education.

"I was thinking about the faces of two children sitting in a first grade class and one's name is Jose and the other’s name is Liam and they are both benefiting from dual language," Logan said. "They both have Spiderman backpacks, which they are both very proud. Although they are sitting in the same classroom, the way that people talk about them and their experience is different."

The different languages spoken in public schools in Nebraska. (Courtesy Nebraska Department of Education)

Graduation rates between English Language Learners (ELLs) and the rest of students were the focus of the event, sponsored by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. ELL students graduate at about a 60 percent rate nationally, while the rest of public school students graduate at about a 90 percent clip. Those figures are similar to Nebraska rates. Over the past five years the total number of ELL students has risen about 22 percent in Nebraska.

A majority of ELL students in Nebraska are in K-3rd grade. Though 70 percent of ELL students speak Spanish, there are 112 languages spoken in Nebraska public school according to data provided by the Nebraska Department of Education.

In the end, Logan said students don’t care about policy, they care about how they can learn.

"And thrive in a system that really believes that Jose and Liam have the same opportunity to be the best version of themselves," Logan said.

Logan, who speaks Spanish and French, says the term ‘English Language Learner’ is often used as a derogatory slur. But, she said anywhere else speaking more than one language is often seen as a positive trait. 

"But we do not extend that grace to our kids," Logan said. "How do we see the ability to speak another language as an asset?"

Nebraska counties with the number of students in each county. (Courtesy Nebraska Department of Education)

Whether a student is born in the U.S. or not, when entering a Nebraska public school students whose native language is one other than English qualify for special classes. Students in the program take an English proficiency test called the English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century or ELPA21. If a student’s score is high enough they move out of the English Language Learner program and into classes with the rest of the student body. This can occur for students at any point up to their senior year. 

Anna Lamas is a parent of three children who attend public schools in Nebraska. She wants her kids to learn English, but she also wants them to remember their Hispanic heritage.

"We try to include our language – it's hard – because sometimes they pick up and they want to just speak English," Lamas said. "But we try very hard to keep the home language. I try to implement it with music and movies – however I can so they can keep it and then they can use it at school."

Lamas said her kids are very smart and they try to help other students at school learn English.

"They see it at school," Lamas said. "They said, ‘Mom, this kid came in he doesn't know any English and I help him!’ and they make (them) feel proud and I said, ‘Yeah, that's why you're here for – to help others, to be successful.’"

Michelle Suarez is the early childhood developer at Prosper Lincoln at the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation. She said it is important for students to learn English, while keeping their native language.

The number of English Language Learners by grade in Nebraska public schools. (Courtesy Nebraska Department of Education)

"We also know that some of our children come with other languages as their first language and they also deserve the right to be able to thrive in the culture and language that they bring as well as then of course learning English and being able to be successful in schools," Suarez said.

Suarez said events like the one sponsored by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute are vital to trying to close the achievement gap. She also says investing in all of Nebraska’s children will pay dividends for our communities.

"There's a moral argument that everyone deserves the right to reach their hopes and dreams and finally there's brain science -- that's research based -- that proves the investment that we make in the early years will pay off greatly to the public good, as well as to the private good," Suarez said.

She said ensuring all students have a chance to reach their potential is both the right thing to do and the best thing to do.

“And that has an impact on the health and prosperity of our state and of our communities,” Suarez said. “So, if we want to establish and maintain a strong future for our community, for our state, we need to make sure that we attend to all of our children.”

Ten elementary schools in Douglas and Sarpy counties have joined with the Buffett Institute to develop a program that specifically focuses on the first eight years of life – up to third grade. Each school has a home visitor who visits families three times a month – before the children even go to school. This allows parents and teachers to catch the scholastic milestones of their students together, while fostering strong ties between families and educators.

Some say when it comes to the achievement gaps in graduation rates, the data is skewed. Terri Schuster is the director of ELL programs at the Nebraska Department of Education. She says graduation rates can be a good indicator of success, but they don’t tell the whole story. For example, once an ELL student passes the annual assessment, they are no longer considered an ELL student – and they are no longer counted as an ELL in graduation rates. So their figures are added in with the rest of students.


Reaching Students Who Don't Speak English December 6, 2017

"Instead of that 30 percent gap, it would be reduced down to 16.37 percent – that is a significant difference," Schuster said. "A lot of times, it's just that ELLs need more time in order to reach those graduation requirements."

Schuster also said the test given to ELL students has gotten even more rigorous in both curriculum and strictness. This means they don’t have as many students exiting the program and therefore there are more ELLs. She said that in 2014, 60 percent of ELL students graduated high school. In 2017, that figure dropped to about 50 percent. Meanwhile, in that same span all other students graduated between 88 and 89 percent.

Schuster said the influx of new ELL students added with the increased standards of the testing have played into the achievement gaps. She also said in a lot of ways educators around the country are trying to find and perfect best practices each and every year.

"Learning English is like a journey," Schuster said. "We start off at a baseline and then every year we measure it but we're always just looking for progress from year to year knowing that we're going to reach that goal of proficiency, but it's going to take time."

Schuster believes the work being done by school districts is helping close the achievement gap between students still learning English and students in homes where it’s the common language. She said sometimes, statistics – on the surface – don’t tell the whole story.



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