English Language Learners in Richmond high schools are struggling — here’s what we can do

Illustration by Tess Wladar

Ishaan Nandwani, Opinions Editor

Let’s face it — high school is hard.

Between challenging classes, novel social expectations and the impending uncertainty of adulthood, it can be draining and overwhelming on many occasions. I certainly felt that way.

Now picture attending high school in another country, with an entirely different language and culture. On top of that, your parents are unable to assist you in navigating your education because they themselves do not understand. Without any support, high school is no longer just draining — it’s next to impossible.

Unfortunately, this is the reality for countless immigrant and refugee English Language Learner students across the United States. The increased barriers that these students face in their education have led to high dropout rates in this population.

This issue is especially pronounced in Richmond Public Schools. In 2022, just 38.2% of English Language Learners in RPS graduated, with numbers falling to 27.9% at George Wythe High School, where English Language Learners make up 38.4% of students.

I’ve been fortunate enough to serve as a bilingual tutor in the science department at George Wythe, and through my interactions with the students and conversations with faculty members, have identified solutions to these barriers. Additionally, I affirm George Wythe assistant principal Jennifer Blackwell’s list of recommendations to the Richmond School Board, and will provide my ideas to feasibly implement them.

One of the most significant challenges facing English Language Learners is the students’ ability to comprehend content in class. The teachers are predominantly English-speaking with a classroom full of students to teach.

Although they try their best, it’s impossible to cater instruction to each student without support. As a result, students are often lost and withdrawn. Many resort to using translator apps on their phones, but this is not an effective or long-lasting solution.

One of Blackwell’s recommendations at George Wythe is to implement bilingual tutors into every classroom, which I believe will make a significant improvement in students’ grasp of the material and their self-confidence. In my personal experience working with individual students using Spanish to familiarize themselves with the concepts, I’ve seen significant improvements in their understanding.

I understand the difficulties of implementing a wide-scale effort to further bilingual instruction in this way, in terms of both obtaining qualified tutors and funding. One strategy could be to create a partnership with George Wythe and the VCU School of World Studies, through which foreign language majors can get course credit for serving as bilingual classroom tutors for a specified number of hours each week throughout the semester. This can also be implemented at other local colleges and universities, such as the University of Richmond.

Parent involvement in their children’s education is also low at George Wythe, which serves as yet another barrier for students. However, this isn’t from a lack of wanting to be a part of their kids’ lives — language barriers provide yet another constraint, with only one bilingual office assistant at the school who is available to speak with and support parents.

There’s another opportunity for VCU to fill this gap. Students in the Spanish-English Translation and Interpretation program have the opportunity to select from a variety of internship placement sites to fulfill a requirement towards their certificate; adding this position as one of the encouraged placement sites for students can provide students with critical experience and George Wythe with the support that they need.

The problems facing English Language Learners aren’t unique to George Wythe, but understanding and filling the gaps at this institution can serve as a model for the work we do across RPS and the entire nation.

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