The Nation’s Educational Endemic No One is Talking About: Interrupted Formal Education of Older English Learners Brittany Sharpless ESL Educator

Unless you have been under a pile of ungraded papers, English Language learners (ELs) dominate the edu-chat bandwidth. This is not surprising considering ELs makeup 1 out of every 10 public school student in the United States. As English as a Second Language (ESL) educators navigate best practices for language acquisition and advocating for marginalized student populations, their acute lenses recognize jarring truths. My jarring truth confronts a vital component absent from educative discourse. There is an urgency to support a unique microcosm of our non-native English speakers; we need to support older students with interrupted formal education.

English learners make up 1 out of every 10 public school student in the u.s.

Throughout the nation, ELs’ educational experiences are abundant with gaps in learning. They are split, divided, and sectioned into intervals of nomadic, sinuous paths. War, civil unrest and corruption are the master thieves of time. ELs trudge through a magnitude of adversity unbeknownst to many. Here are their stories.

"My family want to leave because military used to come to school and take students from school to serve military. Then one day they go to my big sisters school to take her to serve military. My Dad don’t want to let her go because he know the situation there. And you can pay money if you have it. But my father know the way. It was risk. If they see you skipping from one country to other, they will kill you. I was 10 years old."-a2g student, 21 years old, four years interrupted education

Once in the United States, the hurdles continue as ELs navigate the complicated naturalization process. Some students, being the sole adult in the family with basic communicative English, become heads of their large households. Rapidly, these ELs become chauffeurs and interpreters. Presented to the societal sphere are fogged lines between parent and child. They siphon through inaccurate dates on documents. Others live day-to-day, imprisoned with the fear of deportation.

In the United States, seeking asylum, one of my students went to an immigration appointment and left in handcuffs. Missing an entire semester of school, my student and their father remained incarcerated for three months. Prior to entering the United States, the student missed a total of eight years of education because of an eye illness.
“I dropped school because I had to, I never wanted to. I had to work to make expenses for my family. The responsibilities I had required me to drop school.”- A2G student, 20 years old, three years interrupted education
“I have a message for those who have a different understanding of refugees and immigrants. We always view other people with our eyes, we need to view other people with their eyes. Some refugees and immigrants as myself have experienced an interrupted education. We never wanted to have that experience. It is the time that changes things. What is noticeable is of how we are passionate to have education after so much we have been through”-A2G student, 20 years old, Four Years interrupted education

For a plethora of reasons, English Learners have interrupted education.


Now, what are we doing to supplement for stolen time for our most at-risk learners?

Unique learners carry unique experiences mandating unique academic pathways. At Iroquois High School in Louisville, Kentucky teachers are combating stolen educational time by assisting young adults with a route to graduation. As a pilot program, in the state’s most diverse high school, Accelerate to Graduate (A2G) attempts to abridge students towards the fruits of the future. The program utilizes a performance-based and cross-curricular model to propel students rapidly through essential standards. Upon completion, students receive the highly coveted, seminal document: the high school diploma.

A2G is located at Iroquois High School in Louisville, KY

Seventeen years in the making, A2G cultivated as the brainchild of Vicky Cummings and Elisha Beardsley. Both educators were teaching Adult Education ESL and noticed the range of ages of incoming ELs, and more importantly the abundant gaps of education.

"The genesis came from a 20 year old Burmese student named Ling. He was skilled in masonry and carpentry but could not read or write. Unfairly, Ling aged out of the system. Programs must be provided for the lings of the world"- Vicky Cummings, international academy coordinator, Iroquois High School

In the summer of 2017, the A2G teacher team formed and blueprinted the upcoming year.

The 2017-2018 school year started with 30 students ages 17-20, representing 14 distinct nationalities. In order to graduate, all students needed a different number of credits. The team, comprised of myself, Donna Neary, and Will Riley, knew project-based and personalized learning was intrinsic to the time constrained operation. The program's pillars included leadership, communication, citizenship, confidence, innovation and character.

Lul Abdallah, A2G Graduating Senior, speaks at a community event, May 2018

The challenges emerged when teachers called for students to not simply understand their content, but to be understood when discussing content and to advocate for their learning. Propelling learners towards a true ownership of their credit completion was no easy feat. The students had never been asked to delve into such a depth of understanding of content and process.

Mustafa Ibrahimi, A2G graduating senior, presents his passion project, January 2018

After the initial bouts of pushback occured, students reached a turning point in October 2017. Students drafted persuasive letters to the nation’s state governors. They requested governors to send coffee mugs to be shared during discussions with classroom visitors. The authentic audience motivated the developing English writers. As the students submerged themselves into their work’s purpose, deeper learning surfaced.

A2G students open a package from Kay Ivey, Governor of Alabama, October 2017

With project-based learning as a foundation, A2G partnered with The Speed Art Museum to enhance students' exploration into varied modes of art. Simultaneously, students were meeting essential standards in Humanities, World History, and English.

A2G continued with deeper learning in their partnership with the Food Literacy Project. In just 12 meetings, students built a cob oven, constructed, planted, and painted six raised beds, wrote recipes for a cookbook, and prepared and served a meal to more than 50 community members.

A2G students at iroquois farm in partnership with the food literacy project, november 2017

For 27 students, the 2017-2018 school year attempted to return a stolen component. A component too many educators fail to consider and include in their advocacy. Programs and alternative pathways for our older ELs must be commonplace to every public high school’s ESL services. These learners, like every student, carry potential. Despite this commonality, schools' needs and populations differ. We have had some success this year, and we look forward to continuing our work with a new cohort next school year. Our design is not intended to be duplicated and may not work for all schools, but the message remains clear. In order to fully reach our most at risk students, we challenge you to not only think outside the box but to abandon the box all together. Deeper learning and project based learning might just be the solution to incorporate learners on the brink of education abandonment. With a committed team of educators, supportive faculty, and involved community partners, students' needs can be met. Before we lose any more time, let's interrupt the conversation and take action to welcome older ELs into all the possibilities education has to offer.

"Education is very important and I believe that the fundamental entitlement of every human, since without education we can not achieve anything and we can not change things in the world. We all have rights and one of them is the right to education, we can not build a tomorrow if we are not able to work in the "today" that we are all living. So and only then will we be able to see beyond borders, to know and understand that behind each sunset a sunrise blesses and that we will have the opportunity to create a new world since we will be able to create our own future, our tomorrow, and New dreams"-A2G student, 21 years old, Eight years interrupted Education
Brittany Sharpless is an ESL English Educator for the Accelerate to Graduate program at Iroquois High School in Louisville, Kentucky and a member of Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions. She is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, serving in Ethiopia 2013-2015. Her next venture includes joining the 2018 MACIE Cohort, School of Educational Foundations, Leadership & Policy at Bowling Green State University.

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