NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

The Orleans Parish School Board unanimously passed a resolution at its Thursday night meeting encouraging the state’s top education agencies to create alternative requirements for English Learners to help them earn a high school diploma.

As a subgroup of the student population in Louisiana, English Learners were half as likely to graduate from high school as all students in 2019, according to state data. That figure improved slightly in 2020, when 48 percent of English Learners earned a diploma, compared to 84 percent of all students.

Board member J.C. Romero introduced the resolution, which asks the Louisiana Department of Education and state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to make it easier for English Learners to earn high school diplomas, by earning required credits and meeting seat-time requirements, in addition to completing a standards portfolio for required courses and showing they are on track to English proficiency. The pathway would not require them to pass state standardized tests.

“This resolution is about ensuring there are pathways for limited-English proficient, English Learners, and immigrant students to have the opportunity to graduate high school and become successful contributors to our society,” Romero said. 

The state’s standardized test, called LEAP 2025, is only offered in English, Romero said, and he argued that, in addition to several other requirements, is a hurdle to students with limited English proficiency entering the school system. Additionally, he notes, English Learner schoolwork, which helps students learn the language, does not count for any school credit. That may be a disincentive for some students, he said.

“It’s not about supporting mediocrity, but expanding opportunities,” Romero said. 

Emma Merrill runs a school program called Las Sierras Academy within the Collegiate Academies charter network for students who have entered the country in the last six months. During public comment Thursday, she said the program opened last semester with 20 students from Collegiate’s five high schools and now has 45 students.

“We now have a waiting list — and those 45 are just from those five high schools,” she said, noting they hope to expand. 

“I consistently ask kids, what brought you to our school? And last week one of my new scholars said ‘I got here four months ago but I heard from my friend that this is a place for us to be.’”

Merrill is a member of the Expanded Criteria for English Learners in Louisiana Coalition, a group of educators working to promote the alternative pathway, which they call EXCELL.

“The proposed EXCELL Graduation Pathway expands the eligibility criteria for graduation by allowing recently arrived immigrant children to graduate by earning required credits, meeting seat time requirements, completing a standards-aligned portfolio for LEAP 2025 courses, and maintaining trajectory to English proficiency,” the group stated in an August press release.

“I’m really excited New Orleans is leading the effort in creating these pathways for graduation and I challenge the rest of the state to do the same,” Merrill said Thursday.

After public comment board members spoke, including Romero, who often speaks of his experience growing up in a Spanish-speaking family while attending New Orleans public schools and translating for his mother, who did not speak English.

“Imagine yourself, a 10th grader who recently emigrated to Louisiana, being forced, not immersed, but forced to assimilate to a strange culture, language and way of existing,” he said.

“Imagine yourself going to school every day not knowing what the people around you are saying — not being able to share with your family what’s going on at school because you simply don’t know and still showing up day after day to put forth the effort “required” by our state to graduate,” he said, noting these students also may be dealing with political unrest at home. 

He emphasized that the alternative requirements are about correcting inequalities these students face throughout the school system. 

As his emotions overflowed, he personally thanked board president Ethan Ashley and OPSB member Olin Parker.

“You have literally taken the time to listen to my people and my community,” he said through tears.

“You came to this board with a very common sense solution and one that is grounded in humanity,” Parker said. “This resolution tonight does not signify the end of the board’s involvement.”

The board voted unanimously to pass the resolution. 

DOE examining the issue

At the state level, Louisiana Department of Education spokesman Matt Johnson said the agency has been examining the topic.

“LDOE has had individuals researching the impact of graduation assessment requirements for English Learners for several years,” he wrote in an email. “We have worked with both internal and external stakeholders and contacted other state education agencies for ideas on an effective way to alternately the standards on our content assessments for ELs who meet a certain criteria.”

The pandemic “put this work on hold, but we are ready to resume and move the process along to create a more equitable high school experience for our newly arrived ELs,” he wrote.

Last year, the department’s EL Advisory panel met with top agency administrators “to bring attention to the issue of how graduation assessment requirements are an unnecessary obstacle for high school ELs,” he wrote.

He said the state has created an alternative way to measure EL students’ knowledge of course material that would reflect the material on state-required tests while considering their limited language proficiency.

Though the state department is already looking at alternatives, any change would have to be approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education because it would change graduation policy.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...