Getting ELLs on the college track

Christine Rowland has been an urban New York City educator for 15 years. She's come a long way from the small, all-girls school she attended in England and knows that coming from another culture has given her just a tiny taste of what immigrants face in a new country.

Rowland has spent her teaching career in high schools in the Bronx, where the tradition of Ellis Island is still strong. Approximately two-thirds of her incoming high school students are recent newcomers to the United States.

Rowland spent seven years as an ESL teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, until she was recruited by the Board of Education to become a professional developer. Four years ago, she joined the UFT teacher center and is based at Christopher Columbus High School, where she provides on-site professional development.

She recently spoke with Colorín Colorado about her work.

Meet Christine Rowland

What's the ELL population like in your school?

We have about 17 percent ELL students, which is consistent with the demographics of the Bronx. The largest number speaks Spanish, but we also have a large number of students from Albania and also a large number of Arabic speakers. We have students from 40 different countries at this school, and classrooms typically will have students who speak six languages.

Describe something you've done as a teacher that you felt had a long-lasting impact on your students.

I'm very interested in post-secondary opportunities for my students. One of the things I did was start an after-school program to help them get into college.

How did that get going?

My first year as a teacher, I asked my classes how many were seniors and how many were planning to go on to college. I had several seniors who wanted to go to college, and then I asked how many had filled out their applications. They hadn't!

The problem was the assemblies for college-bound seniors were so large and they spoke so fast that my students didn't understand what they needed to do. So I asked to start an after-school program to help them get their applications and essays and things like that done.

How was the program organized?

The first program had 20 students. I made the mistake of focusing on the [Teaching English as a Foreign Language test] and SATs and not enough on application forms themselves. Later I realized you couldn't make a lot of difference on those tests, and where I should have been spending my time was on the application and essay and finding the right college.

[The next year], we did it with all the ELL seniors. We started by talking about what they wanted to do in their lives, and then helped create plan to get there. As a result I was asked by the New York City Department of Education to write a handbook on how to get into college.

How can ESL teachers help students with their applications and essays?

It takes a lot of energy from somebody to do the post-secondary prep. You have to be willing to stay after school and do a lot of one-on-one with students. I would have them photocopy their applications and fill that out so I could look it over for glaring errors and make sure everything was complete. I would do a tremendous amount of work to help them get ready to write their college essays.

Did it work as you expected?

One of the things I found was that it made a tremendous difference in the motivation of my students. We put display boards up with every senior's photo with which college they were going to and tried to create a culture that "you're going somewhere, you can achieve your dream."

We found that it helped motivate younger students, too, and motivation is a very tricky issue for high school kids. They saw other students succeeding and could see themselves there, too.

Were there other unexpected outcomes?

As the years passed, I would make a note of which colleges were receptive to non-native speakers, and I also kept track — through old students — which ones took care of them. We found there were a few schools that were really unsuitable: they got them involved too much socially or the students felt too different, or there wasn't enough support for them.

After a while, you develop relationships with colleges, and we found some very strong colleges would accept ELLs. They also helped me to tell them what they needed to do to have the transcripts they needed, like maybe a student would need to take a summer school class.

What else did you do to help motivate your students?

I think one of the things I did with intermediate ELL students that made a difference was an autobiography project. Part of that was establishing goals for themselves, including the job they wanted and doing research about what that job required.

For instance, if they wanted to be in the field of law, they might find in doing the research that they didn't want to go to school long enough to get through law school. But there are other things besides being a lawyer. They could work in the field as a paralegal, maybe, which didn't require as much school. I tried to get them to think in a very concrete way about what they wanted to do and then work backward from there.

What tactics did you use to get your students to think in a concrete way?

I had them establish three long-range goals, three mid-range goals and three short-term goals. What they were going to accomplish and how they were going to do it. It wasn't the only part of the autobiography, but it was the part that got them thinking about their future.

They started seeing what you have to do in high school in order to accomplish what they wanted. What kind of [grade] average would they need to get into the school they wanted? What kind of classes did they need?

I was trying to get them to turn their dreams into concrete goals.

Did many of your students go on to attend college?

One year 96 percent of our students had college acceptances. That was really high. That included some who would be going to community colleges and maybe taking vocational courses, but still, that takes post-secondary planning. Some of the other (remaining 4 percent) students came back the next year to tell me that they'd gotten in someplace. It was very important for them to tell me.

How did your students do once they got into college?

My experience was that our students went on to do very well in college. Many of the students who went to four-year colleges, graduated in four years. The ones who went to community colleges took a little longer.

Manhattan Community College did a study on this and published the results about the same time I was doing the post-secondary prep work. The study showed that ELLs tend to graduate in higher numbers, but it might take them a little longer to get through. They don't give up. They're more determined to get that American dream.

Tell me one of your favorite success stories.

Oh, yes! I had a student, named Joanna, my first year of teaching. She was a hallway walker. She would cut class two or three times a week. She was a nice kid and would do good work when she was there, but she cut a lot. After about a year and half she decided to get her act together, but it took her five years or so to graduate.

In her senior year, I started working with her on getting into a college. She wanted to be a doctor, but her average was [very low], and there was no way she could get into a program that would lead to medical school. I suggested that she try to get into nursing.

She really wanted to get into a four-year nursing program. I tried to convince her to apply to two-year programs, because I didn't think she would get into a four-year program, but she had it in her mind that she wanted a degree.

I always encourage my students to apply to their dream school, along with other schools, and, of course, she was rejected. I've never seen a student so upset by a rejection. Floods of tears, just devastated. She didn't get accepted to any of the four-year colleges — I'm not sure that she even got accepted to the two-year nursing program either.

I started talking with her about community college again. I explained that she would have to work hard for two years, and if she continued to work and didn't lose heart or hope, she might be able to go somewhere from there.

Then, in May, we got an emergency call from a private, four-year university in New York. They were starting a new bilingual nursing program and were desperate for students. That late in the year, most candidates were already committed to other schools. It was unbelievable timing.

We wrote glowing reports of Joanna, and she got accepted into their four-year program. About a year later, she appeared in a Spanish-language supplement in the Daily News. There was a full-page picture of her, a write-up on the program and of her, talking about how she came back to school and what a stellar student she was. It was really great.



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