Adult English language learners struggle against program's policy

Students view study guide
Students Jie Li, left, and Tezeta Shumete work on a class discussion questions about bullying in schools on October 23, 2013 at the Hubbs Center in St. Paul.
Amanda Snyder/ MPR News

Every year, as many as a half-dozen students at the Ronald M. Hubbs Center in St. Paul have to be asked to leave the center's English language programs.

The center has little choice. Minnesota law requires Adult Basic Education English language learner students to progress at least one level every 30 months for their programs to receive funding. The problem, say critics, is they often have no place to go to get the English skills they need.

"Imagine what that would feel like to someone to be told basically, 'You're getting kicked out of school,'" said Janet Sparks, a teacher at Hubbs.

The Hubbs Center serves about 850 English language learners at its main location and outreach sites. Statewide, about 27,000 were enrolled in adult English language programs last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

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The state implemented the 30-month policy in 2007 in response to concerns from some adult education programs, according to Josh Collins, Minnesota Department of Education spokesman.

"I think there was some feedback from programs that there might have been folks who were utilizing the program not necessarily for educational purposes, but were perhaps using it as a way to socialize or meet other adults," he said.

Asha Abdille, 36, has made progress at Hubbs, but understands why some students struggle.

Teacher Janet sparks points to student for answer
Adult basic education English Language Learner teacher Janet Sparks points to a student to answer the question to the discussion sheet on October 23, 2013 at at the Hubbs Center in St. Paul.
Amanda Snyder/ MPR News

"When you're an adult, and you have kids, and you want to go to school, and you have work, it is very hard. Very, very hard," she said.

Though she had to take some time off for work and to take care of her three daughters, Abdille is now in an upper-level English language learner class and is planning to begin GED classes.

In addition to the struggle of balancing work, home and school students may also struggle because they've experienced trauma.

"What they've been through -- particularly the elderly and the traumatized -- and now you're asking them to learn a new language and furthermore, hit all these benchmarks," said Rosemarie Park, a University of Minnesota associate education professor.

Jennifer Weaverling, Hubbs' adult basic education assistant supervisor, said students who have to be referred out are often those who use the program as a social outlet. But they also tend to be students who attend regularly and love coming to class.

And when those students are referred out, they may not have anywhere else they can go to learn English.

Because many ABE programs rely on the same funding system, they're held to the same progress policy.

"We've tried to find institutes in the community that fulfill this niche, and we've had a really hard time," Weaverling said.

Students sometimes end up at community-based organizations, Park said.

But many of those organizations are focused on a single ethnic group, and it can be difficult to find one that will meet a student's needs and also be accessible.

"I think you feel a little powerless at that point," Sparks said. "Especially if there's room in your classroom -- they want to be there; I want them to be there."

It's often unclear where students end up after they're referred out, Park said. ABE attendance is voluntary, so students aren't tracked the same way they are in the K-12 system.

"No one has systematically looked at where these people have gone, quite frankly," she said.


Question sheet from student
Student Abdelmajeed Eissa asks a question to the group during a break out discussion session on Oct. 23, 2013 at the Hubbs Center in St. Paul.
Amanda Snyder/ MPR News

Educators also say the system is flawed because tests used to measure progress don't provide a full picture of what a student has learned.

Progress learning English is measured with standardized tests like the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS), which Hubbs uses. For immigrant students with limited formal education, test-taking and other learning skills are foreign.

Abdille was born in Somalia but grew up mainly in Kenya, and didn't attend school beyond third grade.

"For someone like me who had no education before, it's like I started from zero," she said.

Though Abdille didn't have much formal schooling, she began classes more prepared than some. Students may arrive not knowing how to hold a pencil.

Patty Flynn, who teaches an early-level Hubbs English language learner class, said she currently has a student who's entering her second year and is struggling to improve.

For a recent class exercise that required students to fill out a doctor's form, Flynn said, the woman wrote all of her responses under the line, rather than over it.

"Out of a 24-question test, there's so much they need to learn," Flynn said.

But even students who make progress initially may later encounter roadblocks that could push them out of a program.

Students who get to an intermediate or early advanced level have to take a particularly difficult form of the CASAS test, said Hubbs teacher Lia Conklin Olson.

Many of these students want to go to college, but sometimes won't be able to pass the test in two years and have to be referred out.

Conklin Olson and Sparks said they'd like to see a more comprehensive assessment -- something like Hubbs' internal scale, which evaluates students on reading, listening, speaking and "soft" skills.

But for now, standardized tests are the requirement, and teachers are trying to figure out the best way to guide students through them.

"When I look through this building, the amount of experience and education and passion for these learners is really, really high," Sparks said. "So I think that really speaks to how difficult an issue this is."


As standards rise, programs are forced to focus their efforts on students they know can make progress, Park said.

And the effects reach beyond ABE classrooms. The number of Minnesota parents whose "lack of basic skills" impedes their children's success is increasing, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

When immigrant parents learn English, they're better able to help their children in school, Sparks said.

"People feel like they're willing to have their taxpayer dollars go to K-12, and now they're starting to be willing to have their taxpayer dollars go to early childhood ... they're not so excited about money for adults," she said.

Abdille's oldest daughter is 13, and the two often work on homework together. Abdille hopes to become a nurse, and her daughter dreams of becoming a doctor.

"She gets motivated when she sees me on the table and doing homework," Abdille said of her daughter. "And she's able to help me, it makes her feel good."

The effect of some people not developing English proficiency has the potential to stretch into the workforce. Immigrants are increasingly needed to fill employment gaps. But immigrant communities have "the highest risk" for low literacy skills, Park said.

Ultimately, she said, it's an issue of people not being given an opportunity to show what they can do.

"If you've got artificial barriers in people's way, what you're doing is denying them the opportunity to make something of their lives," Park said. "You're throwing away human capital."