With its southernmost border adjacent to Mexico, it's no surprise that the Golden State serves one-third of the country's English language learners. But over the last few years, major budget cuts have slashed funding to programs that help these learners, according to a June report from the Migration Policy Institute.
Now with the help of technology, California is starting to bounce back with increased money and flexibility for K-12, higher education and adult education for the Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander and other English language learners in the state.
The Migration Policy Institute sees this improved budget situation as an opportunity to reverse the deep cuts that affected programs for first- and second-generation immigrants. And with the combination of instructors who can individualize learning and technology that can help stretch state resources, English language learners could become fluent much faster.
A number of school districts have been adopting online programs to help students learn the concepts they need to prepare them for college. The Oakland Unified School District uses online programs that work with history curriculum that the teachers already use. These programs teach the same content, but adapt to the language level of different learners. That way, students can build their vocabulary while learning the same rigorous content as their peers.
In Anaheim Union High School District, a large online learning program allows students to take career and technical education courses including accounting and Web design. Any student in the district can take an online class that their physical high school doesn't necessarily offer, and many English language learners do. Online teachers participate in professional development so they can effectively support and teach English language learners, and Anaheim's model is a good example of combining a technology platform with a well-trained teacher, said Sarah Hooker, co-author of a report on California immigrant student success from the Migration Policy Institute.
A number of successful programs focus on preparing students for college. On average, California high school counselors serve 800 students each, compared with a national average of 470, according to the institute's analysis of National Center for Education Statistics 2011-2012 data. That means that counselors don't have enough time to help guide students through the college preparation and admissions journey, but rather must focus just on course registration in high school.
The California College Guidance Initiative has stepped up to help fill in the gap for these students who can't get college advice from their high school counselors. Through an app that's available to all students, they can get advice and figure out how to meet different college preparation deadlines. The initiative comes out of the Foundation for California Community Colleges, a nonprofit foundation of the community college system's Board of Governors and the Chancellor's Office.
"That definitely has great implications when, unfortunately, there just aren't enough people who can fill the role of counselors," Hooker said.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, a small nonprofit called Educators for Fair Consideration gives presentations at schools and advises undocumented immigrant students online from all over the U.S. Their advice includes answers to questions on college access, the California Dream Act and legal relief for immigration cases.
At the higher education level, California's 2012 Student Success Act requires community colleges to provide more counseling, assessments and orientation for incoming students. That way, students have a goal to shoot for and know which classes they can take to get there. By doing more up-front counseling, community colleges will help students take the classes they need instead of taking extra or unrelated courses.
Once students get accepted into college, they also need guidance on which placement test they should take, which Hooker says is an area where technology could potentially help in the future. Many students don't take the English as a Second Language assessment because they don't want to be in courses designed for English language learners. But for those who do, they may not do well on that assessment depending on their skill level.
Here's the problem. Proficiency tests are designed to figure out whether students can handle college-level work and which class levels they should start with. But oftentimes, the results from English language learners make it hard to tell when they don't understand the content versus when they don't understand the questions or don't have the words to describe their answers. This is an issue that the California Community College System included for improvement in a recent strategic plan. And it's also something that states should work on at the high school level with Common Core assessments that can accommodate English language learners, Hooker said.
During the first year of college, students on certain campuses can join a learning community or cohort program designed to give them a small-group experience with embedded counseling and English language learner courses. These learning communities tend to include Latino or Southeast Asian students, two of the largest English language learner populations in the state.
The challenge with this type of model is that only so many students can go through programs like this. And this challenge presents another opportunity for technology to help colleges provide counseling and support for all students, Hooker said.
One of the learning communities that has seen good success with students is the Puente (Bridge) Program. Administered by the University of California system, this program welcomes students from any ethnic background and prepares them to transfer to a four-year college. The program operates in 61 community colleges and 34 high schools throughout the state, and in the 2009-10 school year, 56 percent of students in Puente transferred compared to the average community college rate of 44 percent.
As California gives school districts more local control over funding and colleges reassess their funding priorities, now is the time to look at how to continue to serve English language learners in a state with high populations of Latino and Southeast Asian immigrants, Hooker said.
"We're trying to highlight these opportunities as moments for California to really think about how to use these resources to advance the success of immigrant students who are such a large share of their population."