Home Teaching How to Create College and Career Pathways for English-Learners (Opinion)

How to Create College and Career Pathways for English-Learners (Opinion)

by Staff

This two-part series will explore ways we can help English-language learners pursue postsecondary education.

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action may very well have an impact on these efforts. Importantly, the decision says that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting an applicant’s discussion about how race affected his or her life, be through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

Though the true “fallout” of this decision has yet to be fully seen, one way we high school teachers can begin to respond is to provide specific assistance with college-admission essays to our ELL students, and to all our students of color, to ensure they articulate the impact of race on their life’s journey when appropriate.

Targeting Strengths

Tu Vuong is an educator who has worked as a consultant, teacher, and advocate for newcomer families and students. She has been a lead in projects with the Ontario Ministry of Education and Apple Education and has contributed lots of educational content to magazines, blogs and podcasts:

For this response, I will focus on a subset of the ELL population—multilingual learners with limited or interrupted formal schooling. While these students may have limited age-appropriate reading and writing skills, they bring cultural literacies and global competencies unique to their lived experiences. What can we learn about their story to unlearn our existing biases and oppressive stances?

“Not being able to read does not mean that one is empty of stories.” (Ocean Vuong)

As these students enter a formal education system, we need to establish initial and ongoing partnerships with learners and their families. Building personalized relationships means we are engaging in continual, intentional dialogue to understand learned skills through their lived experiences, strengths, and educational and career goals.

In contrast to imposing our narrow views of what learning should look like, by centering on students’ comprehensive experiences, we can create an educational plan and daily course curriculum that targets their strengths and knowledge. Building on these competencies while also affirming and amplifying students’ identity in the curriculum will foster meaningful growth and allow students to thrive. In planning for newcomer students, we must be attentive to their unique stories and provide multilingual educational supports and pathway planning that is individualized to each learner to help them reach their goals throughout high school and at postsecondary.

These tenets can be the foundation that create an inclusive, collective new space where all aspects of learning are not only considered but formally recognized and would mark a breakthrough in structural barriers.


Show Possibilities

Michelle Makus Shory, Ed.S., is a lifelong language educator who has taught grades K-12. She currently serves her district as an instructional lead for digital innovation, adjuncts for local universities, and co-creates weekly resources for educators at bit.ly/ell2point0:

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, English-learners make up more than 10 percent of students in public schools, and there are more than 5.1 million English-learners in the United States. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education has found that fewer English-learners expect to attend college (10 percent) than their native English-speaking peers (34 percent). Further, according to the Pew Research Center, immigrants (many of whom are English-learners) are three times less likely to have a high school diploma. To support English-learners in postsecondary education, educators can help students in two ways: showing English-learners that postsecondary education is possible and exploring multiple postsecondary pathways.

Show That It Is Possible

Encouraging students to pursue postsecondary opportunities begins with sharing success stories. Educators should ensure that the stories of culturally and linguistically diverse scientists, poets, mathematicians, historians, and musicians are woven throughout the class curriculum. Emily Francis, an award-winning teacher and published author shared her immigration story through a Podcast calledOur Stories Matter. Consider sharing this with students—and discuss what struggles and triumphs Emily experienced along the way.

Additionally, culturally and linguistically diverse students need clarification on the pathways to postsecondary education. Talk to students about the FAFSA, common applications, and tests like the ACT and SAT. It’s important to demystify the process. Encourage students to explore a site like Cappex to learn about various postsecondary institutions or FastWebto find personalized recommendations for scholarships. Schools should make college information available in multiple languages and have interpreters (or access to interpretation services) available during parent meetings.

Share Other Pathways

While sharing information about college with everyone is important, students shouldn’t feel shame about not wanting to attend a four-year college. Many high schools embrace an academy model that prepares students for work and/or college. For example, students in Louisville, Ky., can participate in the Academies of Lousiville, a program that provides an industry certification and opportunities to earn college credits. A remarkable aspect of this program is that it allows students to have hands-on training in health care, engineering, or other areas of interest before leaving high school. This valuable experience will enable students to make an informed decision about their college major—or enter the field in an entry-level position.

One Last Thing

Finally, when encouraging culturally and linguistically diverse students to pursue postsecondary education, it’s most important to start with a conversation. Have a one-on-one with students to ask them about their interests and aspirations. Introduce them to a career-exploration site like Occupational Network Online or a site like 16 Personalities that explore different personality types if they aren’t sure where to begin. Creating an open dialogue about postsecondary plans and sharing your journey can be especially powerful.


A ‘Supportive Culture’

Jody Nolf is an associate language and literacy specialist at Vista Higher Learning. For more than 20 years, she taught English and reading to middle and high school students. Six years ago, she transitioned into the world of ESOL as a full-time coordinator and advocate for multilingual learners, creating professional development and working with educators around the United States. You can follow Jody on Twitter @jodynolf:

Creating pathways to colleges and careers is an important consideration in the education of secondary English-learners (ELs). Educators and institutions must provide equitable opportunities for ELs to pursue postsecondary education. However, some schools lack sufficient resources to provide those pathways to success for their ELs. Such resources include a culture of acceptance and inclusiveness within the school walls that all staff members support, robust ESL and counseling teams to serve as advocates for students and their families, and partnerships with organizations and agencies that sometimes exist outside of the school community.

Having a culture of inclusiveness within the school is an important first step in supporting and encouraging ELs to pursue postsecondary education. There needs to be a firm belief that all students can learn and be successful, including students from diverse backgrounds. The more students hear the words, “I believe in you” and “You can do it,” the more they will understand that adults, especially their teachers, support them in their efforts to grow and continue their education. Educators need to focus on learners’ assets (referred to as asset-based learning) and use those assets as bridges to opportunities for learning. By focusing on EL’s strengths, schools foster a culture of understanding and of cultural acceptance.

Once the supportive culture is established within a school, strong teams need to be in place to advocate for EL learners and their families. Some EL families, depending upon their circumstances, do not have access to postsecondary resources, and therefore, they rely upon the schools to provide all available information. However, without a strong team of advocates, the families are often still left wondering what opportunities are available for their children. They might not understand the application process or financial-aid availability, daunting tasks for many families, regardless of background. Supportive teams within a school specifically address these needs in ways that support ELs. For example, some schools host college-information events facilitated in multiple languages, often during evening hours to accommodate working families.

Even if the above two components are present within a school, it often still “takes a village” to wholly support EL students in their postsecondary endeavors. Many schools simply cannot do it alone. However, communities often have agencies geared toward assisting students and families to make college or career training a reality. It is in a community’s best interest to help these families so that there is a strong, educated workforce, especially a diverse workforce comprised of various cultures and spoken languages.

The desire for a diverse workforce is what drove me to create a partnership with my local state college. This one-of-a-kind partnership brings Spanish-speaking middle school ELs to the college to tour the campus and perform a DNA extraction. What makes this event unique is that the entire experience is facilitated in Spanish. Therefore, newcomers can learn about postsecondary opportunities in their new country. Students can also see educators who have similar experiences and backgrounds: former ELs who immigrated to the United States, learned a new language, and earned their high school diploma. Equally important, students bring memories of this experience home to their families to share in their dreams of postsecondary success.


Thanks to Tu, Michelle, and Jody for sharing their commentaries.

The question of the week is:

What can schools do to specifically support and encourage ELLs to pursue postsecondary education?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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