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English Language Learners Face Extra Struggles In High School

English language learners face extra struggles in high school

The House of Flags installation in London was created for the 2012 Olympic games, and features 206 countries. (Courtesy photo by Karen Roe via Creative Commons)

By Lev Farris Goldenberg,
GSS Correspondent

High school students who are English language learners, many of whom hail from other countries, often have limited options when it comes to getting help with school.

For these students, English is their second or third language; some arrive in the U.S. knowing no English at all.

Davis Senior High School in Davis, California, has nearly 100 ELL students, but just one bilingual para-educator, whose role is to help students with transitioning to English classrooms, understanding teachers’ instructions and classwork.

Stephanie Guzman, DHS’ para-educator, sits in on English and history classes, and said she’s stretched too thin.

“It’s hard for me to focus on all the students because all of them need help,” Guzman explained.

English teacher David Achimore, the head of the ELL department, teaches the writing and grammar classes for English learners.

Though many ELL students are close to fluent, many others need help, he said.

Several years ago, 11 percent of all DHS students failed at least two classes per semester, compared to 37 percent of ELL students. Achimore says once the school involved Guzman, that number fell to 23 percent.

“(Guzman’s) great, and she doing a lot, but she is definitely being asked to do quite a bit,” Achimore said.

DHS’ academic center is an additional resource for ELL students. Most of the tutors are bilingual students from the University of California, Davis, and most speak Spanish. Spanish speakers make up more than half of all ELL students.

But ELL students have limited access to the tutors, because UC Davis starts about a month after the high school.

“The first month of school for ELLs, which is probably the most important, (they have) the least amount of support, which is a huge problem,” Achimore said.

Achimore has advocated for more bilingual para-educators but said “we just don’t have the money in the district to do that.”

Senior Iesha Anderson, a teaching assistant for a DHS English class, sees the day-to-day challenges faced by ELL students.

“I feel like the teachers should try to do something … to assist with the Spanish-speaking students or the students who don’t speak English,” Anderson said. “But they don’t really try. They just send them off to the (academic center).”

Although Achimore encourages teachers to keep ELL students in their classes as much as possible, he acknowledges sometimes sending them to the academic center is the best solution.

“History classes are so full this year, you’ll have 38 kids with just two EL students, and if they need support, that’s only offered in the (academic center),” he said. “Having them work on that assignment with a one-on-one tutor in the academic center makes more sense than having them in a classroom.”

Before Guzman’s hiring, ELL students most often failed history classes. Now that she sits in on those classes, science has become the chief concern.

“My goal is to get a bilingual para for science classes,” Achimore said. He tried to get one hired last year, but again said the funding wasn’t available.

History teacher Peter Reilly, who has had several ELL students in his classes, said one possible solution is to have teachers create alternate curriculae specifically to engage and facilitate learning for ELL students. But that can be tough for teachers because of their large class sizes.

“If you have seven different languages in a class, and seven kids at seven different levels, you’re talking about, really, seven different classes. And how does one teacher do that?” Reilly said.

If these students do not receive the proper help, though, the problems snowball.

“Usually with language, what happens is, kids who are unfamiliar become insecure,” Reilly said. “Then, they start feeling like they’re not the smart kid. Then, they get behind, and that is not just one class, it is six classes.”

Although history class grades for ELL students are improving, Reilly still faces some unique obstacles.

“These kids when they come here, they may be brilliant in math and science, because that’s a universal language, right?” he said. “I teach government, [so] how do you access the words like ‘expressed powers’ or ‘filibuster?’”

He praised ELL students, who each day face language struggles other students don’t have to think about.

“I look at these kids that are doing this and I go, ‘Wow, that’s really brave,’” Reilly said.

DHS teachers aren’t the only ones who recognize the problem — the 2016 Western Association of Schools and Colleges report shows similar findings.

“A notable gap exists between the scores of Asian and white students relative to the scores of Hispanic/Latino, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and English learners,” the report said. “While not all numerically significant, the low proficiency percentages of subgroups including black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, English learners and students with disabilities does present cause for concern.”

The report notes that programs like the academic center can do wonders for ELL students. The most successful approach has simply been “more consistent instruction and curriculum.”

DHS seems to be on the right path — according to the WASC report, in the past four to eight years, English teachers’ curriculae have been consistent.

Still, there’s a long way to go.

“With a public school, you have to be accessible to all,” Reilly summarized. “There’s the physical access, but then there’s the cognitive access.”

This story was originally published on, the student-produced news website of Davis Senior High School.

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