[lg policy] Minnesota: Adult English language learners struggle against program's policy
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Thu Nov 28 15:40:08 UTC 2013
Adult English language learners struggle against program's policy by Emma
Minnesota Public Radio
November 28, 2013
ST. PAUL, Minn. — 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
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
Teacher Janet sparks points to student for
"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
"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.
*NOT A 'COMPREHENSIVE ASSESSMENT'*
Question sheet from
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
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
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."
*A WIDE-REACHING ISSUE*
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,"
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
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."
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