ELL students thrive in algebra class

Educators in Action

To graduate from high school in Bellingham — or any other public school in the state, for that matter — students must pass three years of math. At Bellingham, the high school math curriculum starts with Algebra I.

Learning about coefficients, exponential functions and polynomials is like learning a new language. But what if you truly are learning a new language at the same time you’re taking Algebra I? What if you arrived in the United States as a middle or high school student with limited English language skills, or no English at all?

English language learners, or ELL students, have a disadvantage in math classes, statistics show. One way to measure math performance is to look at student scores on the state’s end-of-course (EOC) exam for Algebra I.

It should be noted that the overall passing rates on the EOC from 2015-16 are unusually low because the data only includes students in grades 10-12. Students who perform at grade level in math typically pass the exam by ninth grade, but last year’s ninth graders didn’t take the test because it is being phased out as a graduation requirement.

That said, 19 percent of ELL students passed the Algebra I EOC exam in 2015-16, according to state data provided by Brian Rick, director of research and assessment for Bellingham Public Schools. That compares with the 60 percent of non-ELL students who passed in 2015-16.

Over the past three years, Bellingham has had an influx of ELL students with an additional disadvantage: They have significant gaps in the education they received in their home countries. Educators have another acronym for this group: SIFEs, or students with interrupted formal education.

A majority of these recent arrivals are from Central America, said Bethany Barrett, a director of Bellingham schools’ ELL program. Political conflict, lack of access and poverty are among the reasons these students stopped going to school. Many of them were in the waves of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S. border from Central America, starting in 2014.

Incoming SIFE students are enrolled at the school appropriate for their age, even if they come in with a fourth-grade education, a first-grade education or — in some cases — no formal schooling whatsoever.

Some of these newcomers struggled with adding and multiplying on entrance exams, yet Bellingham high schools don’t offer a math course below Algebra I.

“You put a kid like this into algebra with no support, and they just can’t do it,” ELL specialist Lindsay MacDonald said. “They don’t have the background.”

With about two dozen students in this predicament entering the 2015-16 year, school officials devised a solution. The students were placed in math classes tailored for them and taught by MacDonald, who divided her time between Bellingham and Squalicum high schools. Students took the “pre-algebra” class as an elective because it couldn’t count as a math credit toward graduation.

This year, those from the original cohort who remained in Bellingham schools are enrolled in regular Algebra I classes with non-ELL students at Bellingham and Squalicum. These students, now totaling 22, also take four additional periods per week of math, taught by MacDonald with support from volunteer Betsy Rocks and ELL instructional aide Chesed Reyes. This extra class gives the students more time to practice the concepts they are learning from math teachers Ted Flint at Bellingham and Jacqueline Martin at Squalicum.

Entering spring break, 20 out of the 22 students were passing Algebra I, MacDonald said. While a student’s standing in a class in March doesn’t correlate exactly with how they would do on a state EOC exam, the current 91 percent passing rate is a clear success.

“It’s like a miracle,” said MacDonald, who noted that many of these students hadn’t even heard of fractions, decimals or negative numbers when they arrived.

MacDonald has been working with these students most every school day for the past two years but said the credit goes to administrators who had the vision to single out this cohort for intensive instruction, and the school staff who implemented it. A key part of the solution was the decision by counselors to group these students in the same classes, she said.

Ultimately, the credit goes to the students themselves.

“It’s a wonderful cohort, where they really help each other,” MacDonald said. “There’s a spirit of collective achievement.”

“It’s been a really exciting thing to see,” Barrett said, “as students sit down and attack a problem or talk to each other about math.”

Barrett noted that no single solution has been found that works best with high school-age English learners with little educational background.

“Across the state, people are struggling with these students,” Barrett said. “You have to look at the newcomers you have and build a model around them.”

School officials anticipate providing Algebra I support for SIFE students next year, and adding support for Geometry, which is the next step after Algebra I.

“We can do our best to build a program right now for next year, but we’re going to get kids on our doorstep this summer and next fall,” Barrett said. “We really can’t anticipate our needs.”

Bellingham school officials see this more as an opportunity than a problem.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about this particular program. We have been able to be responsive, when we have the resources,” Barrett said.

Photos: (1) ELL specialist Lindsay MacDonald teaches algebra at Bellingham High School in an extra class designed for “SIFE” students, or ELL students with interrupted formal education. (2) MacDonald and Ted Flint help SIFE students in Flint’s algebra class at Bellingham High School.

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