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How a new high school program plans to teach English learners the language in 1 year

Emma Merrill teaches a biology class at Las Sierras Academy, a new high school program in New Orleans for recently arrived immigrants. Nov. 15, 2021.
Aubri Juhasz
Emma Merrill teaches a biology class at Las Sierras Academy, a new high school program in New Orleans for recently arrived immigrants. Nov. 16, 2021.

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When Stephanie, then 16, traveled by herself from Honduras to the U.S. last spring to reunite with her father in New Orleans, she was lonely and afraid.

She didn’t know what to expect from her new home, but was certain of one thing: If she wanted to succeed, she’d have to learn English.

“I spent some time in immigration and then in a hostel,” she said in Spanish when interviewed in November, several months after arriving in Louisiana. “During my stay in both of those places, my motivation was to learn English.”

She asked her fellow travelers and people she met on the 20-day journey to translate small sentences for her on slips of paper. At night, she’d take them out and read them aloud in an attempt to practice English.

Since then, Stephanie has grown her language skills significantly as a student at Las Sierras Academy, a new high school program in New Orleans for recently arrived immigrants. Because of Stephanie’s immigration status, New Orleans Public Radio is only publishing her first name.

Emma Merrill, the program’s founder and dean, said since the start of the school year, Stephanie has grown two-and-a-half years in reading and can also now string together small sentences in conversation.

"For a 16-year-old girl to be on her own on a walk to another country is huge and really scary and is something I would never wish on anyone,” Merrill said. “I think the fact that Stephanie has already done all of these things to achieve her goals is incredible."

Las Sierras is a one-year program operated by Collegiate Academies, a charter organization that operates four high schools in New Orleans. The program is open to Collegiate students that have arrived in the U.S. within the last two years and have limited English proficiency.

Merrill is a long-time English learner (EL) teacher and has been the director of English language programming at Collegiate Academies for more than six years.

Before Las Sierras opened its doors in August, Merrill said she scrambled to fill 30 open seats. The program, housed at Collegiate’s G.W. Carver High School in the city’s Desire neighborhood, started the school year with around 25 students and now enrolls close to 50.

School values in Spanish and English decorate the hallway of Las Sierras Academy. Nov. 15, 2021.
Aubri Juhasz
School values in Spanish and English decorate the hallway of Las Sierras Academy. Nov. 16, 2021.

While the program is new, Merrill has been working on it for much of her career, and its launch is evidence of changes in city demographics that have taken place over several years.

Very few public schools in Louisiana had any ELs at the high school level until 2014, when thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America arrived at the U.S. border.

Some made their way to New Orleans and ultimately ended up at Carver, where EL enrollment quintupled over the course of the 2014-15 school year. In a city rebuilt on school choice, many immigrant families would continue to choose to send their high school age children to Carver.

While the number of English learners in Louisiana has been growing, the state still has a low percentage of ELs compared to the rest of the country. In 2018, 3.7% of Louisiana students were learning English compared to 10.2% nationally.

Special academies for older students have become increasingly common in parts of the country where EL students make up a higher percentage of the overall student body, but are rare in states like Louisiana where specialized instruction for a small group of students is often cost prohibitive.

Las Sierras is the first newcomer academy run by a Louisiana charter school, according to the Louisiana Department of Education, though similar programs are operated at the district level in Jefferson, Livingston, Lafayette, Calcasieu and Bossier parishes.

Even though the number of ELs attending schools in New Orleans is small compared to some other districts both in and out of state, Jerel Bryant, Carver’s principal, said Collegiate is committed to preparing “all” students for “college success and lives of unlimited opportunity.”

“Regardless of the size of the population, we need to make an effort to do our best to iterate and get better,” he said, adding that the creation of a newcomer program had become the obvious next step since ELs in Louisiana rarely graduate on time.

The creation of a specialized program has also allowed the charter to pool resources in a way that benefits all of its students, Bryant said. By sending EL students from across Collegiate’s four high schools to Las Sierras temporarily, he believes students will be able to learn English faster and grow academically, ultimately allowing them to return to their original school stronger than ever.

While Las Sierras is new, there’s already discussion about eventually opening the program to students from across the district, though that likely won’t happen anytime soon, Bryant said.

“We have to get it right a few times before that opportunity arises,” he said. “We want to ensure that there are more voices that are aware of the systemic challenges that exist for this population and that it’s not just coming from Carver or Collegiate Academies.”

What learning looks like at Las Sierras

Unlike some newcomer programs that focus primarily on teaching students English, sometimes at the expense of building content knowledge, the point of Las Sierras is to do both simultaneously.

In Merrill’s biology classroom, vocabulary terms are written on white boards and class materials are distributed in Spanish and English. She tries to teach her classes entirely in English and assist in Spanish only as needed.

“My goal is that 90% of the time or more I’m speaking in English, which is really hard when kids have a lot of questions,” Merrill said. “It takes a lot of prep and planning to make sure, ‘OK, I have all the visuals I need. I have all of the help on the walls that I need so kids can understand the content in both languages.’”

Biology class at Las Sierras Academy. Nov. 15, 2021.
Aubri Juhasz
Teacher Emma Merrill's biology class at Las Sierras Academy. Nov. 16, 2021.

Even with careful planning, Merrill knows not every student in her class will be able to understand what she’s saying, even though students are grouped based on their language proficiency rather than age or grade level.

If a student answers a question in Spanish, she’ll ask them to translate it to English. They can turn to a classmate for help, or Merrill will have them break down the sentence or word as a class.

Toward the end of the 90-minute class period, Merrill gives her students their first pop quiz entirely in English. It’s open notebook, and each student has a dictionary to help them translate the questions.

Louisiana has some of the strictest graduation standards in the country and is one of just a handful of states that requires all students to pass the same graduation exams in English.

Merrill is also part of a coalition of educators urging the state to offer an alternate graduation pathway for recently arrived ELs.

“These tests are written for kids who have been learning the English language their entire lives and growing their skills and reading and writing in English since they were in kindergarten,” Merrill said.

She said the point of the quiz is twofold: Test students on the material they’ve learned and walk them through how to take state exams that are given only in English, though ELs get extended time and can use a dictionary.

“The dictionary is the only tool they can use to help them,” Merrill said. “I make sure everybody’s ready to use one.”

Aubri Juhasz
A student uses a dictionary to translate quiz questions from Spanish to English. Nov. 16, 2021.

She said while she sees her job as teaching students content and not necessarily teaching to take a test, she also knows their future is tied to whether or not they pass.

Over the years, Merrill said she’s had many students who earned As and Bs in their classes with language support, but scored poorly on state exams. The longer it takes a student to graduate, the more likely they are to drop out and never earn their diploma, she said.

With newcomer programs, the shorter the better

Merrill believes newcomer programs, like Las Sierras, are ideal for immigrant students who come to the country in high school. Ilana Umansky, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon who studies the impact of policy decisions on ELs, agrees.

Umansky said newcomer academies are best suited for students who are older and could even age out of the public school system before they achieve academic English proficiency.

It takes students on average between five and seven years to learn a new language, and in most states, including Louisiana, the maximum age for public school attendance is 21 years.

Umansky said while younger children can typically catch-up with in-classroom support over several years, the purpose of newcomer programs is to help older students grow English proficiency more quickly. Even then, it’s important for students to integrate back into the larger school community as soon as possible, she said.

“It's really important to keep it short because kids can get sort of trapped in newcomer schools,” Umansky said. “They may be very comfortable, but they may not be getting the kind of exposure that they need to be successful in high school and beyond.”

Merrill said Las Sierras is trying to avoid that by delivering high quality instruction in math and science while keeping students connected to their original high school. The program is also designed to be short, with students attending for one year or less.

“Our goal is that kids grow two years in English in a year with this program,” she said. “I expect that they can grow three years in a year.”

Merrill said the reason she thinks students will grow faster at Las Sierras is because of the quality of instruction the program provides. The school’s four full-time teachers are all experienced EL instructors and are committed to using data to meet students' needs.

Progress monitoring exams, measuring growth in reading, writing, speaking and listening, will be administered four times over the course of the year, Merrill said. Students also complete reading assignments using software that measures their progress every day, that way they can see if a student’s progress has stalled or slowed and intervene right away.

“That could mean tutoring after school or a private conversation with a student like, ‘Look, I know what you can do. Your goal is this and we need to meet that,’” she said.

Students at Las Sierras take four classes a day: English as a second language, science, math and physical education or art, Merrill said, adding that PE and art are opportunities for them to take a class with the other Carver students.

Aubri Juhasz
Two students embrace while changing classes at Las Sierras Academy at G.W. Carver High School. Nov. 16, 2021.

Roberto, 18, said he struggled to learn English and make friends before coming to Las Sierras because there were no Spanish-speaking students in his classes. New Orleans Public Radio is only using his first name because of his immigration status.

He said his English language teacher helped and befriended him, but he felt isolated from the rest of the school. Now, he learns with a group of students that he can talk to in English and Spanish, and he’s made friends with non-Spanish speakers in gym class.

“My teammates are super cool with me, and they’re helping me learn English,” he said.

Because the school year in Latin America ends in December, Merrill said she expects more students to enroll in Las Sierras after the winter break.

Class sizes at Las Sierras are already larger than Merrill would like them to be, and she’s looking to hire another teacher to join the program before January. For now, there’s no cap on enrollment and Merrill hopes to keep it that way.

“We’re absolutely not turning anyone away who needs [this program],” she said.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s audio stories.

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