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School districts expand supports to bring more ELLs to CTE

  • SKILL BUILDERS—Nashua School District in New Hampshire has developed several initiatives to increase the number of ELLs in its CTE programs. Educators have produced safety videos in Spanish and English, translated textbooks, and expanded PD for instructors.
  • CAREER INCLUSION—English language learners account for about 10 percent of the students in the CTE programs at Nashua’s two high schools.

Embedding language instruction into CTE programs can help close what some educators see as an “opportunity gap” faced by students learning English. And participating in the hands-on projects of CTE can be an effective way of accelerating language acquisition.

In October 2017, 30 percent of the students in Boston Public Schools’ CTE programs qualified as English language learners.

At Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, ESL teachers now co-plan and co-teach with CTE instructors in courses ranging from traditional trades such as plumbing and carpentry, to high-tech pathways in computer science and design.

Madison Park also works with a local nonprofit called Write Boston, which sends specialists to coach teachers on additional literacy strategies.


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“The equity component is at the forefront of our work, and we keep that in mind when building CTE pathways,” says Michelle Sylvaria, the district’s executive director of career and technical education.

At Boston International High School’s Newcomers Academy, all the students in the two-year medical assisting CTE program are current or former English language learners. And many students in the school’s Class of 2018 graduated with certifications in CPR, first aid and workplace safety.

Both Madison Park and Newcomers Academy have been proactive in providing classroom and vocational teachers with PD in state-required “sheltered English immersion strategies” that blend language lessons into general academic instruction, Sylvaria says.

For the Class of 2016, Boston’s graduation rate for ELLs in CTE programs was 82 percent. It dropped to 74 percent in 2017 as more students entered the program, but that rate still compares favorably to the general population of students, Sylvaria says.

Nontraditional CTE students

CTE and ELL leaders at Nashua School District’s two high schools in New Hampshire teamed with the broadcasting department to produce safety videos in English and Spanish. Some CTE teachers had been concerned about adequately communicating safety procedures to students still learning English, says Amanda Bastoni, the CTE director at Nashua North High School.

“Across the nation, CTE has not done an outstanding job of outreach to ELL students,” Bastoni says. “But CTE centers are now addressing this, and I think Nashua is on the cutting edge.”

Many CTE programs receive funding from federal Perkins grants. Nashua educators sought an additional grant to fund summer PD sessions, during which an ELL educator familiarized CTE instructors with all the academic supports available to ELL students.

The grant will also fund increased support for seven ELLs categorized as “nontraditional” CTE students. These are students who are underrepresented in their programs, such as males in cosmetology and education, and females in engineering and computer science. Textbooks and other learning materials will be translated. 

The district, which employs a full-time ELL outreach worker, holds workshops at school and in the community to make sure ELL families are aware of the district’s CTE programs.

Parents have learned about college opportunities and have been made aware that employers will often pay for continuing education when they hire high school graduates, Bastoni says.

Reading a manual

Outside Boston, Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School covers 16 districts near the New Hampshire border. Twenty-four of its students qualify as various levels of ELL. Before entering the program, the students take placement tests that measure their reading, writing and math skills. Some students new to the U.S. have even taken the tests in Spanish, Principal Tom Browne says.

Teachers at the school have earned dual certifications in their core subjects, such as English, and in ESL instruction. Other floating ESL teachers can co-teach in classrooms and vocational courses when instructors request assistance. Finally, ESL teachers have time to collaborate to make instructional plans for individual students.

A key focus is helping students with the technical language in automotive, culinary arts and other CTE programs. “That’s where we would really target the ESL instructors getting in and working with those particular students,” Browne says. “Reading a manual is one of the biggest challenges.”