Students identified as Limited English Proficient (LEP) make up 15% of our school’s population, yet they comprise an average of 85% of our students who decide to drop out. Our department agreed that this significant educational gap was the most important to address.
A central reason we believe high dropout rates exist for LEP students is the challenge posed to them by diploma requirements. LEP students are required to reach a certain level of English proficiency before they can begin taking academic courses that meet the requirements to earn a diploma. Per the Virginia Department of Education, most courses these students take within the English Language Learners (ELL) program count towards elective credit only and do not allow them to earn credits toward the specific requirements for core subjects. For this reason, LEP students often must stay in high school for one to three additional years. We have found that students are often not fully aware of these requirements and understandably become frustrated with the amount of required coursework.
Our department developed a plan to address this problem by working with our LEP students to ensure they were fully informed of diploma requirements as well as academic success skills. We believed that doing so would better equip students to make decisions about their course of study as well as increase their confidence in their ability to progress. We decided to focus on our LEP Level 4 and 5 students, as these students are on the cusp of exiting from ELL courses and will experience somewhat of a gap in support as they enroll in a full schedule of mainstream classes for the first time. Intervening with this group would provide much-needed guidance in academic planning. Unfortunately, we have observed the trend that most of our LEP Level 1-3 students who drop out do so because they are approaching the age limit for high school enrollment and will be unable to complete graduation requirements in the remaining time.
Our department developed a series of five small-group lessons to be implemented once a month from December to April. We served thirty-seven students, divided into four small groups. All four counselors delivered the lessons on a rotating basis so each of us saw every group at least once. The lessons addressed diploma requirements, learning styles, and engaged students in goal-setting and in college and career planning. Students took a pre- and post-test survey for each lesson. A particularly poignant data point was identified on the pre-survey for the first lesson. 97% of students said that graduating from high school was important to them, however only 57% of these same students said they felt confident in their ability to achieve this goal.
Overall, we saw a clear increase in these students’ knowledge of requirements and in their sense of preparedness for academic, career, and college planning. We were thrilled to see that 100% of these students were promoted to the next grade level. As of September, all of the thirty-seven students were currently enrolled in school. True to our observed trend, of the thirteen students who did drop out during the 2015-16 school year, ten were LEP level 1-3 students who were over the age of eighteen, and one was a level 4 student who was identified for our group but left before it began. On a positive note, nine of those ten students as well as the level 4 students were all planning to enroll in the county’s Adult Education program to work towards completing their requirements.
While we were pleased to see that our Closing the Gap efforts appeared effective, a common problem our department identified was a lack of enthusiasm from the LEP students who we had participated in the groups. We believe it is important to continue providing the same information to this population, but we hope to find a way to increase their level of engagement. Additionally, we acknowledge that it is important to work with the LEP students in levels 1-3 to complete our efforts to close the gap. Due to the complexity of issues facing these students, addressing this gap will likely require more extensive interventions and even systemic change beyond our scope as school counselors.