English learners (ELs)—students who speak one or more languages other than English and need support to access English curricula—are a growing population in community colleges in the US. In addition to language, EL students are diverse in racial and ethnic background, national origin, immigration status, and socioeconomic status. A large share of ELs are Latinx students, who are often treated as a monolith, despite the diversity of their social, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.
English learners are often discussed in the context of K–12 education, but it is important to consider their postsecondary needs and opportunities as well. Despite their numbers, there is limited research on ELs in higher education institutions. Most data sources focus on the subset of college students who enroll in English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, even though not all EL students enroll in ESL classes.
We are Latinx English learners ourselves, and we know how critical it is for educational institutions to support English language learning to help students succeed during college and after. The ability to communicate in two languages (Luis) or three languages (Daniel) with other students in similar learning situations allowed us to feel included and navigate our worlds in multiple languages.
Every EL experience is unique and valuable. And though Latinx EL students are a diverse group, they share a struggle that can be alleviated through specialized programming and support. Community colleges and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) are critical in supporting Latinx EL students inside and outside the classroom. Latinx students enroll in community colleges more than any other racial or ethnic group, and they account for at least 25 percent of enrollment at the 569 qualifying HSIs in the US. But there is a long way to go to close the education equity gap for Latinx students.
To learn more about how community colleges can meet the needs of Latinx English learners through better data and other strategies, we spoke with Chris Tombari, dean of academic affairs and transfer initiatives at the Community College of Aurora (CCA) in Aurora, Colorado. CCA—a member of Urban’s Career and Technology Education CoLab College Community of Practice—was federally designated as an HSI in 2016, and about 30 percent of its student body identifies as Latinx.
What successes have Latinx English learners at CCA experienced?
Chris Tombari: In general, our college is very proud of our community and how we serve our community. There’s a lot of shared passion, shared values around making sure our students are fully supported. We’ve seen increases in our completion rates among our Latinx students over the years along with our population increases.
What practices has your college implemented to address the learning needs of Latinx English learners, and what are your plans for the future?
CT: We’ve gotten into the practice over the past eight years or so of disaggregating student data so instructors and full-time faculty members and part-time adjunct instructors can see how populations are doing in their classes, broken down by race and ethnicity and gender. If a math teacher could see that, for example, students who identified as male and Latinx might not have been doing so well over a couple of semesters, they could go look and research how they could improve specifically [for that population] and what they could do differently in the classroom to affect their students. Are they teaching in a certain way that’s making their lessons inaccessible?
Right now, we’re learning and trying and finding new ways to make data more accessible to our educators, to our administrators. We’ve adopted Qualtrics [survey software to track student experiences at the college] as part of our Title V grant. And soon for the college, we will use Tableau to make interactive data displays that people can manipulate down to a degree or an end or you know, gender, race, ethnicity, year of start, things like that. So, our biggest thing is allowing people to get the data that they need. In general, our desire to disaggregate data for improvement is continuing.
During the pandemic, when classes went online or remote, how did CCA accommodate Latinx English learners’ technological needs?
CT: I know there are lots of technological barriers for many of our students, regardless of background and identity. We amassed a lot of computers—desktops and laptops—to loan or give out to students. We were working on getting information out about low-cost internet services, as well as trying to figure out if there were hot spots we could loan out to make sure our students were able to continue their work once they went online.
What can other colleges learn from your experience working with Latinx English learners?
CT: Certainly, the value, the mission of an asset-based perspective on students is the most helpful. Remember that students are coming into the classroom with myriad skills, talents, and experiences that will both inform their own learning and inform the learning of the class in the program. That perspective is important for every educational institution.
Keep maintaining vigilance with data. Disaggregating data by race, ethnicity, gender—it may seem like a lot of work to some colleges, but those of us that have been doing this for a while realize that kind of information is invaluable in program improvement and making sure that the students are served appropriately.
Also, intentional programming. We bring a lot of attention to our Latinx students during Hispanic Heritage Month, which is terrific, [but] we need to do that all year round with other kinds of fun and interesting programming. And then lastly, outreach to the community and community involvement in input in programming is very helpful.
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.