Teenagers without English skills face highest high school hurdles of all

Computer classroom at LEAP
Sandy Lucas leads students in a computer coding lesson at St. Paul's LEAP, Limited English Achievement Program, High School on Friday, December 13, 2013.
Amanda Snyder / MPR News

Every year, thousands of immigrants enroll in Minnesota public schools, but the challenges aren't equal for all of them. As a group, the hurdles are highest for those who enter the system in high school with little or no English lanuage and writing skills.

"It's slow going when you start that stuff at 16, 18," said Sandra Hall, who co-founded St. Paul's LEAP High School, which serves recent immigrants who face exactly those challenges. "They may actually, in some things, go faster than little kids. But how much time have they got?"

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Getting older new immigrants to graduate is "almost impossible," she said, even if they stay until they age out.

At LEAP, which stands for Limited English Achievement Program, about 60 percent of students have never attended school and most are 18-21 years old.

Even those who succeed say the clock ticks loudly, adding to already stressful lives.

"It's not easy to get [a] high school diploma - there are so many requirement classes to take," said Padam Dhungana, a 2011 LEAP graduate who came to Minnesota from a Nepalese refugee camp at 16. "We have only [a short] period of time to catch everything," making it a challenging job.


In Minnesota, state funding for high school students goes away after they turn 21 years old. Districts may choose to keep students longer, though it's not always feasible.

Pare Meh helps Moo Ra Paw
St. Paul's LEAP, Limited English Achievement Program, students Pare Meh, right, helps Moo Ra Paw on her computer coding lesson on Friday, December 13, 2013.
Amanda Snyder / MPR News

The age-out deadline doesn't prohibit districts from serving students past age 21, said Michael Bowlus, English learner education specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education.

"The district really has a responsibility to serve all their students and figure out how to do that appropriately," he said. "Funding from the state or federal government should be part of that, not all of it."

But the deadline does present a "dilemma," he said. Not only do districts lose funding for students who stay past 21, but they're also setting a precedent. If they allow English Language Learners to stay on, he said, it's possible other students might ask for the same treatment.

At a few Twin Cities high schools that serve mainly new immigrants, though, the dilemma is that most students could use additional time.

Dhungana remembers the day when LEAP students were told the school's Adult Diploma Program -- which allowed students to stay until age 23 -- was being cut.

"Some people [were] crying," he recalled. And while the change motivated some students to speed up their path to graduation, he said, others didn't want to come to school anymore.

While Dhungana was able to graduate before 21 and now attends St. Paul College, he has friends who aged out and went on to work jobs where proficient English and a high school diploma aren't required.

Hall said the students who age out and get jobs are "lucky" compared to those who can't get work at all because they don't have basic language skills.

Some students who age out may go on to adult diploma programs or adult basic education, where they can continue English Language Learner classes and earn a GED.

But the GED, designed for students who've had a near-complete K-12 education, can be intimidating.

"Kids get really afraid because they haven't had [classes in] government, they haven't had biology," said LEAP Principal Rose Santos.

Minneapolis' Wellstone International High School, which serves a similar population as LEAP, sometimes keeps students past 21 if they're close to graduating.

One recent student stayed until age 23, Principal Aimee Fearing said, but had arrived very late and was progressing quickly after taking summer school classes.

"If you are two credits short from graduation and we shut the door and say, 'You can't, now try out for your GED,' to me that's not what's best for students and it's not what's best for our communities,'" she said.


Student success often hinges on how much formal education they've had before coming to this country.

While some arrive in the K-12 system with credits that transfer, others don't know how to read.

Dhungana attended school at the camp and knew some English, but still faced a steep learning curve. When he enrolled at LEAP, he said, he understood about 5 percent of what people were saying.

At Wellstone, the yearly graduation rate fluctuates depending on the number of students who come in with formal education, Fearing said.

Orville Harris, a senior, is one of these students. He arrived in the U.S. from his native Jamaica at 15. Like Dhungana, he started school already knowing some English.

When he talks to his friends about life after high school, their plans range from practical to grandiose.

"One of my friends wants to be a pro soccer player," he said. "Some of them don't really know what they want to do yet. Some of them are thinking about joining the army."

Though uncertain when he'll graduate, Harris dreams of going to culinary school and starting his own restaurant.

That kind of focus is unusual, Fearing said.

"I don't know if a lot of our students have that focused of a goal," she said. "They say, 'I want to go to college.'"

For those who do go to college, there's a new set of challenges. Dhungana said deciding on a major is especially difficult for students new to U.S. education.

"Our background is not strong like people who live here, like people who study from elementary school to high school," he said.


Though retired from teaching, Hall still volunteers at LEAP, working with students who are struggling in reading and math.

Many read English at an elementary school level. One, who reads at a second-grade level, will turn 21 in July and won't be able to return to LEAP. Hall said she's nervous about what will happen to him.

Because there isn't a system in place to track students who age out, it's not always clear where they end up. In 2012, both LEAP and Wellstone had more students drop out than graduate.

These students arrive motivated and excited to learn, Hall said. But with many approaching the age-out deadline and the point in their lives when they have to start supporting themselves and their families, there aren't always options.

"This is still one of the best jobs in the world, working with this group of kids," she said. "And that's why I get so mad when we have to stop doing it because of some arbitrary thing."

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