Texas struggled to teach students learning English before COVID-19. The pandemic made it worse.
Six months ago, 16-year-old Honduran Jeffrey Flores arrived in Fort Worth with his family without knowing a word of English but secure in the knowledge it would be among the first things to tackle in his new country.
“It’s important I learn English so I can have a good job,” Flores said in Spanish.
Flores is one of about a million Texas students — roughly 20% of the state’s 5.4 million public school students — who are enrolled in English as a second language classes. He and his two siblings attend Fort Worth Independent School District’s International Newcomers Academy, which is tailored for students new to the country and who need to learn English.
Students like Flores and his siblings aren’t alone in their journey. Each year, more people of color, especially Hispanics, come to Texas, with nearly 2 million additional Hispanic people calling Texas home over the last decade, according to the 2020 census. Texans of color as a whole accounted for 95% of the state’s population growth.
So the importance of teaching non-English-speaking children has never been higher.
But the pandemic is threatening what was a fragile area of education to begin with. A recent pre-pandemic study from Rice University suggests that Texas is getting worse at teaching students English, which impacts both their academic success and potential lifetime income.
Across the state, researchers have found that the number of English learners who failed to become proficient in the language after five years of ESL classes is increasing. The study tracked students who entered first grade between 2000 and 2015 to see if they would become proficient — basically, graduate from ESL — by the time they reach fifth grade. Those who did not were labeled “long-term English learners.”
For several years, the number of long-term English learners remained steady. But that started to rise after 2008. By the 2014-15 school year, nearly 7 in 10 students who began first grade as English learners in Texas public schools failed to become proficient within five years.
Children need to be English proficient by fifth grade as that gives enough time for intervention, said researcher Lizzy Cashiola.
“Early on, the study shows that kids who do not reclassify and are likely to begin middle school as an English learner are much more likely to drop out, they’re much more likely to be retained a grade in high school and and they’re much less likely to graduate on time,” Cashiola said.
Fellow researcher Daniel Potter said they haven’t pinpointed an exact reason for the significant rise in students failing to graduate from ESL classes but noted that factors include a lack of funding, teacher shortages and where students live.
“I don't know that at this point you’re going to identify a silver bullet,” Potter said. “It is a multipronged issue. Now even having said that, I don’t mean to suggest there’s nothing that we can do.”
But again, that path to progress is complicated by the school interruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Potter and Cashiola don’t yet know the full extent of the pandemic’s effect on English learners, but they know it hasn’t made things better.
“School may have been one of the few spaces where those students were exposed to an English-majority environment, and COVID just completely evaporated that space,” Potter said.
Cashiola said second graders starting this fall might have an easier time catching up with the learning they lost, but it might be harder for those who are older and were on the cusp of reclassifying.
It’s no secret that the shift to virtual learning and the uncertainty the pandemic brought have impacted students and resulted in skill gaps, especially for poorer students and students of color.
Faiha Al-Atrash, parent coordinator at International Newcomers Academy, said the last year was a massive challenge for kids at the school because in-person learning is crucial for students who are new to the country and are learning the language.
“The teacher is talking to them, they can see their reaction [and] see if they really understood,” Al-Atrash said.
Teachers have encountered several problems with virtual learning, such as students not logging on to their computers, or logging in but not paying attention. The distractions brought on by the pandemic have taken a toll on student learning and kids’ ability to retain information, she said. Parents of ESL students also are not able to help their kids because they don’t know the language. This was an issue before, but the pandemic made it worse, especially if parents couldn’t navigate the technology.
Flores’ father, Jorge Flores Gutierrez, said in Spanish that he can’t help his son with his homework, and attending classes in person is the best way for his son to learn the language because he is able to practice speaking with others.
Lotus Hoey, an ESL teacher at Pershing Middle School in Houston, said a return to in-person classes this fall has been the toughest on her English learners. They have been out of touch for more than a year, and it’s clear that not having a structure eroded their English-speaking skills.
“They don’t have the stamina because they’ve been in their bed learning in their pajamas,” Hoey said.
Hoey said she and her colleagues are just trying to go slower with the kids so they can catch up.
Ovidia Molina, Texas State Teachers Association president, said the problems with attaining proficiency within that five-year window can be tracked before the pandemic.
As an ESL teacher for 11 years, she felt like there was pressure to make these kids pass a test instead of giving thoughtful instruction to help them succeed.
“I taught seventh and eighth graders, my seventh and eighth graders were at first and second grade level,” she said. “There’s no way that we can move them from first and second grade level to seventh grade levels.”
Molina says that ESL programs need more funding, smaller classroom sizes and goals that shouldn’t be contingent on passing a test.
Earlier this year, Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 560. The measure calls for educators to come up with a more strategic plan to improve bilingual education by looking for ways to increase the number of bilingual teachers and dual-language programs, and have educators come up with better ways to identify students who need to be enrolled.
David Feigen, policy associate for Texans Care For Children, said dual-language programs, where students learn both in their native language and English, must increase as students who are in these programs tend to be more academically successful. Only about 1 in 5 English learners are enrolled in such programs.
Before the pandemic, only 1 in 12 bilingual students were college ready by the time they graduated, Feigen said. The pandemic threatens to make things worse if this law doesn’t pan out.
Feigen said giving these students a quality education will help not only them but also the state as a bilingual workforce represents a valuable piece of society.
When the next legislative session comes around, lawmakers need to have a plan and a timeline to execute what the law is intended to do. Feigen said for things to even get going, it’s imperative that Texas recruits, retains and grows bilingual teachers.
“Texas is a bilingual state,” he said. “We are a state that welcomes immigrants of different backgrounds.”
More bilingual teachers are sorely needed, said Andy Canales, Texas’ executive director at Latinos for Education. Canales said having more teachers of color enhances the learning of ESL students. He also pointed out that the pandemic revealed how economic inequities play a large part in learning success.
Many English learners live in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and maybe don’t have access to after-school programs and other learning opportunities that others have, he said.
“As a society, we need to figure out how do we give our most vulnerable students access to enrichment and learning opportunities,” Canales said.
Disclosure: Rice University, Texans Care for Children and Texas State Teachers Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.