Disrupting the ‘Negative Narrative’ About English Language Learners

This is the latest in a series of stories about how the GradNation State Activation initiative is working to improve high school graduation rates.



A Better Understanding

Like many high school students, Lina has something to prove.

“What motivates me to keep on going and stay at school,” she explains, “is to demonstrate to the people that didn’t believe in me, that I’m going to be someone.”

Also like many of her classmates in Massachusetts, Lina’s first language was not English.

Lina actually said was: “A mí lo que me motiva a seguir en la escuela as demostrarle a las personas que no creyeron en mí, que voy a llegar a ser alguien”— and her statement is included in a new report called “I Came Here to Learn: The Achievements and Experiences of Massachusetts Students Whose First Language Is Not English.”

The report is an effort to improve what is known about this group of students at-risk of dropping out of school.

A better understanding of these students and their needs, the report’s authors suggest, means developing a variety of new resources that might help them stay in school, thrive, and achieve higher outcomes.

‘Disrupting the Narrative’

“We want to disrupt the negative narrative about these young people,” says Dr. Shannon Varga,  one of the authors of the research report and a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Promise, the research institute of America’s Promise Alliance, which led the research.

“Students whose first language is not English are the fastest-growing school aged population in America,” she says. “Stereotypically, they’re viewed as uninterested in learning English, apathetic, and lazy.”

Shannon and her colleagues reviewed student-level data for thousands of students in Massachusetts—and sat down with two dozen from five school districts.

“Without prompting, all of our interviewees said they were motivated to learn English and succeed academically,” Shannon says. “They understand it’s an important part of contributing to our country—something they deeply want to do.”

Tough Barriers

“I Came Here to Learn” sheds new light on the factors that lead to high school dropouts.

“From waking to sleeping,” Shannon says, “these students navigate a complex set of obstacles.”

“Many of these youth are dealing with separation from family members because of immigration policies,” she says. “That has an obvious emotional impact.”

There are economic factors, too.

“Often these youth are the primary wage earners in a household,” Shannon says.

“They face discrimination from peers at school,” she says, “and also have to juggle multiple expectations from different cultures.”

Shannon says this leads to cognitive exhaustion and overload. These students need additional social-emotional and other non-academic supports in their schools and communities.

The report suggests:

Understanding the complexity of young people’s experiences … can aid policymakers in designing, implementing, and dedicating resources to interventions and supports to help.

Helping to Make a Better Path

Shannon says an important part of “I Came Here to Learn” is the emphasis of students describing their experiences in their own words.

“These youth are experts in their own lives,” she says. “They’re going to be the best ones to articulate what’s helping, what’s needed, and what’s missing.”

For example, when asked what he would change to make his experience better, one student noted, “they should develop programs or projects to develop communication among all the students. To be all united and not see each other as different, because that’s the biggest problem here, that’s the only thing. From there, I think everything’s good.”

“These students were so happy to have someone listen,” Shannon says about the work they did with focus groups.

“And they were so grateful that the discussions could someday help students like them have a better path.”


The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson. It’s an effort to increase high school graduation rates to 90 percent. The initiative’s first three grantees are Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education,  Minnesota Alliance With Youth, and WestEd supporting Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable.