Rianna Milne, a 15-year-old freshman at Farrington High School whose native language is Marshallese, is focused this year on getting more comfortable speaking English in class. 

Milne spent a good chunk of middle school taking virtual classes during the pandemic. She says it was difficult to understand her teachers online, without being able to observe their body language or responses from other students. 

“We were always used to seeing teachers face to face and when you are just seeing them on camera, you cannot tell what you’re going to be doing or what they said that you have to do. And it’s confusing,” she said.

Teacher instructions were often written rather than spoken, leaving students who are English learners to rely on their reading skills to understand assignments. Kids studying at home also had fewer social opportunities to speak English. 

The results are stark.

A group of EL students at Farrington High School, where nearly a fifth of students are English learners. Viola Gaskell/Civil Beat/2022

In 2018, 41% of EL students in Hawaii public schools were on track to gaining language proficiency. That dropped to 28% of students in 2021 and 2022. Only 4% of high school seniors met language proficiency goals in 2022 — down from 16% five years prior. 

When students returned to the classroom in 2021 after a year of online learning, Farrington EL Coordinator Akiko Giambelluca said she noticed that many English learners seemed less confident speaking English than before.

The return to in-person learning last year seemed to have made little difference on English proficiency tests. 

Test scores released this fall show that Hawaii made big strides during the 2021-22 school year in helping students recover from learning loss sustained during the pandemic. The percentage of students successfully learning English, however, was one of the few measures of student success that did not budge. 

The state employs 530 teachers who work specifically with EL students, but only 30% of them are considered highly qualified, meaning they are certified in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL. The majority of teachers tasked with helping these kids don’t have a high level of specialized training in that field. 

Students who become fully proficient in English before high school tend to outperform their peers academically. They are more likely to graduate on time — not only from high school but also from college — making them more likely to earn a higher income throughout their lives and less likely to be unemployed. 

The immense potential of these students highlights the big responsibility the DOE has in making sure they learn English, Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong said at a Board of Education meeting earlier this month. 

The EL Journey

In Hawaii, immigrants make up a fifth of the population and a quarter of the state’s labor force. 

Roughly 10% of Hawaii’s public school population, nearly 16,000 students, were classified as English learners last year, and thousands more were former English learners. 

Predominantly Pacific Islander and Filipino, Hawaii’s English learners mainly speak Ilocano, Chuukese, Marshallese and Tagalog. 

Students take a placement test when they enroll in school in Hawaii. The results are used to calculate the amount of time it should take to become fluent in English — anywhere from one to five years. 

There are far more EL learners in elementary school than in high school because many students gain proficiency and exit the EL track before middle school. Two thirds of Linapuni Elementary students are English learners, the highest percentage in the state.

The percentage of English learners on track to gain English proficiency dropped significantly during the pandemic. Screenshot

Middle and high school students have the most difficulty exiting the EL track. Only 4% of seniors and 5% of sixth graders were on track to English proficiency last year, whereas 80% of first graders were on track to proficiency. 

Schools have various strategies for moving English learners closer to proficiency.

Some offered support programs centered around home visits from tutors in 2020 and 2021. Others have allocated funding for bilingual teacher aids now that kids are back in the classroom. 

At Waipahu High School, students with minimal English proficiency start out exclusively in content-based ESL classes, where EL Coordinator Jeremiah Brown says they are given intensive support. 

These are classes that are required for any student to graduate — algebra, U.S. history, biology — but the classes are kept small, usually 10 to 15 kids, and the teachers are TESOL certified.

This semester, there are 68 ESL content class periods at Waipahu High. 

Depending on placement tests and teacher assessments, students are then moved to mainstream classes, which have about 30 students, only a handful of whom are usually English learners. This year about half of Waipahu High’s EL students are in mainstream classes. 

Akiko Giambelluca is the EL coordinator at Farrington High School, where she oversees English language learning for more than 500 EL students. Viola Gaskell/Civil Beat/2022

 Giambelluca at Farrington says that the majority of her junior and senior EL students are close to fluency, but many of them — sometimes even students who are getting straight As — are still unable to pass their proficiency assessment. 

However, some EL teachers and coordinators say the proficiency assessment is not necessarily the best metric of success for these teens.

Many students have the most difficulty with the speaking portion of the test, in which students are given one chance to record their answer to a question that often bears little relevance to students in Hawaii — penguins in Antarctica were the subject of one prompt. 

At Farrington, which has the highest number of English learners in the state, graduation requirements tend to take precedence over English proficiency test scores when juniors and seniors are behind academically. 

“They are already successful, and exiting the EL program might not mean that much to them, but graduating means a lot — to them and their families,” Giambelluca said.  

Giambelluca says that some students who do not exit EL before graduating have to take remedial classes at community college for up to a year before enrolling in standard courses. 

The DOE does limited tracking of students after they leave high school, so it is difficult to know how failing to gain English proficiency affects students who drop out or do not go on to college.   

Betting On More Qualified Teachers

The DOE has been trying for years to improve how students move through the EL program. Many of those efforts have focused on teachers, because of their direct impact on students. 

Laninbwij Nelson says he spoke almost no English when he moved to Hawaii from the Marshall Islands in eighth grade. He says a teacher whom he calls “Mama D” is the reason he thrived in online classes, even college level ones, during the pandemic. 

Mama D, otherwise known as Marirose Daproza, greeted Nelson in Marshallese when he first met her in freshman year at Waipahu High. 

“She is the mother of Pacific Islanders, and really anyone who was in her class. She really cares and she understands your background,” he said. 

Last year Nelson graduated from Waipahu High with seven college credits. He is now studying carpentry at Honolulu Community College. 

The DOE hopes that requiring more ESL training for teachers leads to more success stories like Nelson’s. 

Two decades ago, the DOE issued a directive requiring all public school teachers to earn at least six TESOL credits, the equivalent of two ESL classes. That’s because at some point all teachers interact with EL students, Armstrong told the BOE.

Kaahumanu Elementary School ELL classes in the school library.
English learners study at Kaahumanu Elementary School in 2018. Being able to interact with peers and teachers in person is critical to improving language comfort, students and teachers say. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Enforcement of the directive has been lax, but in 2020, the DOE announced a concerted effort to track teachers’ EL qualifications. 

During the pandemic, Kapiolani College partnered with the department to offer a TESOL certificate program, which includes 30 credits, aimed at producing more qualified teachers and EL coordinators.

For newly credentialed Hawaii teachers, the now-required TESOL credits are baked into their coursework. Licensed teachers have until the start of the 2024-25 school year to complete their credits. 

Brown and Giambelluca, who oversee two of the largest EL programs in the state, say they think the credits do make a difference. Giambelluca says that one benefit of EL training is that it gives teachers strategies to help identify where students are struggling. 

“Those strategies are good for any struggling kid, and there are a lot of them right now,” she said.

Though kids from all backgrounds struggled to meet testing standards in recent years, the achievement gap between Hawaii’s EL and non-EL students predates the pandemic, and remained significant in 2022. English learners were half as likely to be proficient in language arts and 21% of EL students were proficient in math, compared to 38% of all students. 

Hiring more highly qualified EL teachers and requiring all teachers to have some training might help narrow this persistent gap. 

But there’s not necessarily a clear correlation between teacher certification and student results. 

Thirty-seven EL teachers at Waipahu are deemed highly qualified — the highest number in the state Brown estimates. Still, only 10% of the school’s EL students were on track to proficiency in 2022. 

And while Brown welcomes the idea of more qualified teachers, he said that for many struggling EL kids, there are other factors at play. 

“A lot of them are facing tough home situations: they are dealing with the effects of poverty, they aren’t living with their parents, or they’re living with 12 people in a two-bedroom apartment and that’s tough,” he said.  

During a BOE meeting earlier this month, Board Chair Bruce Voss said that preparing high needs students, including English learners, for college was less of a concern than addressing the overall reality of the pandemic’s impact. 

“It has more to do with the fragility of their situation — the lack of mental health support, the lack of social services support, and the lack of economic support,” he said.

Those parts of the equation undoubtedly present a more difficult problem to address. 

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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