Building Student Agency with English Learners

From left to right:
Mariel, Marlenny and Genesis with their mentor Ms. Rosenberg (top);
Ener, Brayan and Elisaul with their mentor Mr. Matute (bottom)

Mr. Matute helped me learn how to deal with trouble, like if a teacher doesn’t listen or doesn’t understand.  He listens, makes me write the problem down, and then we figure out how to deal with it.  Now I’m not so reactive.  I know I am going to make mistakes but I will learn from them. 
It takes me time to get comfortable with some teachers.  Sometimes I am ashamed to talk to them but Ms. Rosenberg helps me be more confident.

The irony of school life is that the students at the center of the educational enterprise are the least empowered members of the community. And recent arrivals to the United States, particularly those learning English, might be the least empowered of all.   But teacher/mentors at Sleepy Hollow High School are making a real impact with their mentees.

Sleepy Hollow High School has a comprehensive, effective advisory program (community meetings) that helps students take control of their own learning and success.  At the same time, Social Studies teacher Carlos Matute was struggling to effectively work with a small group of challenging young men in his 9th grade classroom.  These students had enormous academic deficits and chaotic personal lives complicated by language, immigration and economic issues.  They were clearly on a path to failure and the kind of mistakes that are difficult to recover from.

Matute quietly invited this group of seven students, all boys, to meet with him in the morning for breakfast, or at lunchtime.  No pressure or expectations, they just chatted about whatever was on the minds of the students.  Three years in with the same group, the boys talk about how Matute used to chase them down, but now they find him first.  Together they have created contracts for improvement with other teachers, found resources for extra help, and explored ways to responsibly take control of their education.

Matute, a member of the ExcEL teacher team in the school, shared his experiences and often spoke about the progress and challenges ‘his boys’ are making.  His pride in describing the progress these students have made led another team member, art teacher Mary Rosenberg, to establish her own team of challenging young women.  Rosenberg says she is able to do what any counselor would do if they weren’t stretched to work with 100 or more students.

Both Rosenberg and Matute keep their groups very small and continue to work with the same students throughout their high school years.   Both teachers now also receive a small stipend for their additional time through the ExcEL partnership.

English learners, SIFE students, unaccompanied minors and other adolescent immigrants have unique and urgent needs that may not be met through even the highest quality advisory and mentoring programs in comprehensive secondary schools.  Providing an opportunity for students to problem solve and plan with someone who literally speaks their language and understands their journey has been key to the successful integration of these students.  The mentees are on track to graduate and have realistic plans to go into law enforcement, nursing, and other fulfilling careers in their new home communities.

Where would you be without Ms. Rosenberg’s support? 

I have much more liberty to talk with her.  I start and she help me open up.  I have confidence.  She helps me get support from other teachers.  She keeps me on track.  I’m changed.  I’ve grown.  I’ve always been a smart girl but I made questionable choices.

ExcEL schools are fortunate to partner with the Center for Secondary School Redesign (CSSR).  Founder and president Joe DiMartino reminds us that, “Without opportunities for students to create their own voice and influence what learning could look like in their communities, students will have an educational experience that lacks substance, purpose and relevance. In order to better serve students, schools must create a set of conditions in which students are empowered to become key partners in the decision-making process about issues that affect their daily experiences in school.”