Start Early. Start well.

June 20, 2018

National Symposium in Omaha Focuses on Young Children Learning English

Omaha, Neb. — The educational success of young children learning English is the focus of a national symposium today in Omaha. Nearly 230 researchers, practitioners, community leaders, philanthropists, and policymakers are participating in the event, which is hosted by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska in collaboration with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

National and local presenters will discuss several critical issues raised in the National Academies’ report, Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. The report examines the research evidence about learning English from early childhood through high school, identifies effective practices for educators to use, and recommends steps policymakers can take to support high-quality educational outcomes for children and youth whose first language is not English.

About one of every 10 public school students in the United States is learning to speak English. In Nebraska, the number of English learners PreK – Grade 12 increased 22 percent over the course of five years (2012-13 to 2016-17), according to the Nebraska Department of Education’s annual estimates of English language learners.

“As a state and a nation, we must examine these urgent, complex issues facing urban and rural communities,” said Samuel J. Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Institute. “It is important that we continue building consensus among policymakers, researchers, and practitioners about how best to support English learners’ educational success.”

The report concludes that many early care and education providers, teachers, and educational administrators are not given appropriate training to foster desired educational outcomes for young children learning English. Researchers found that programs and schools are struggling to provide adequate instruction and social-emotional support for English learners.

Nebraska and national experts at today’s symposium, held at the Scott Conference Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, will speak about research, practice, workforce, and policy dimensions as they affect the lives of English learners from birth through Grade 3. Efforts to support children learning English should begin during the earliest years of life, Meisels said, because English literacy is critical to success in school.

Gaps in opportunities and achievement between children learning English and native English speakers can have long-term consequences. For English learners growing up in poverty, these impacts are often greater.

Nationally, only 63 percent of English learners graduate from high school, compared with 82 percent overall. According to an NPR analysis of Department of Education data, the gap is wider in Nebraska, where only 60 percent of English learners graduate from high school, compared with nearly 90 percent overall. Struggles in school can jeopardize English learners’ likelihood of participating in higher education, the workforce, and civic life, and can also have consequences for individuals’ and communities’ health and well-being, according to the national report.

“While it can take several years for children who are not native English speakers to reach the level of English proficiency necessary for participation in the school’s curriculum without further linguistic support, becoming proficient in multiple languages can serve young English learners well in their future education and careers,” said Ruby Takanishi, Promising Futures report co-editor and senior research fellow in the Education Policy Program at New America. 

Children who learn another language early in life can show improved academic outcomes in school as well as enhancement of certain cognitive skills including executive function, including the ability to plan, think flexibly, and regulate emotions,” she said.

Takanishi will open today’s symposium with an overview of the report. National presenters include Eugene Garcia, professor of education emeritus, Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, Arizona State University; Cristina Gillanders, associate professor, School of Education and Human Development, University of Colorado, Denver; Delia Pompa, senior fellow for education policy, Migration Policy Institute, Washington, D.C.; Marlene Zepeda, professor emeritus, Department of Child and Family Studies, College of Health and Human Services, California State University, Los Angeles.

Local speakers include Dekow Sagar, coordinator of the International Center of the Heartland, Lutheran Family Services; Michelle Suarez, early childhood developer, Prosper Lincoln; Stephanie Wessels, associate professor, College of Education and Human Sciences, University of Nebraska–Lincoln; Linda Hix, director of federal programs, Lincoln Public Schools; and Cheryl Logan, incoming superintendent, Omaha Public Schools.

English learners are members of every major racial/ethnic group, and the majority of children in the EL population are born in the United States and are U.S. citizens. Based on federal definitions, the Promising Futures report uses “dual language learners” when referring to children up to age 5 acquiring language skills at home, in their communities, or in early care and education programs. The report uses “English learners” when referring to children enrolled in PreK – Grade 12. The full Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures report is available for download on the National Academies Press website.

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