RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — For Jennifer Blackwell, a Richmond Public Schools (RPS) English success specialist, getting to the root of the problem is what drove her to ask critical questions about why Latino and Hispanic students were dropping out of school or graduating late at alarming rates.
Before Blackwell became a success specialist for RPS, she worked as a bilingual counselor at Huguenot High School. In an interview with 8News in April, Blackwell described herself as someone who always tries to find a way. But often during her time at Huguenot she found herself telling students there wasn’t a way — that they wouldn’t graduate on time or didn’t meet the requirements for a diploma.
“It was in that role that I just really noticed that a lot of barriers, a lot of barriers, in the division,” Blackwell said.
So she started to ask: What is going on here? What can I do?
The majority of English learners who enroll in high school after immigrating from another country often spend years trying to catch up and meet the state’s graduation requirements.
“For instance, I had students that year that it was their fifth year of school, their sixth year of school,” Blackwell said. “They were still struggling and trying to figure out how in the world am I going to graduate?”
Her new position, success specialist, grew out of necessity nearly three years ago. Before it, there was no official position at the district level advocating solely for English-learner students. Part of her work now consists of building programs and implementing them to see more success in the English-learner community.
While she was working on a proposal for ¡Con Ganas!, a year-round program designed for English learners, she often referred back to what she heard from students — is there a night option? Is there a way I can do school and work?
Often times it is work that interferes with a student’s education. Students needed to work, Blackwell said, to support their families in America or in their home countries.
“Students just needed an alternative. It was never that they wanted to stop going to school. They just needed other options,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell said she quickly realized that alternative scheduling had to be part of ¡Con Ganas!
“A lot of the students are coming into the country as ninth-graders but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are all 14 years old. A lot of them were coming in as ninth graders with varying levels of educational history,” Blackwell explained. “Some of them were already 17 years old. It’s also kind of like a race to either dropout or a race to an alternative path.”
Blackwell said she was trying to figure out how to create an environment that could potentially accelerate graduation for these students while also giving them the language acquisition skills that they need to survive in the United States.
The Richmond Public Schools district welcomed ¡Con Ganas! with open arms. Blackwell said English learners are living in a time where their needs are understood.
One of the challenges the ¡Con Ganas! program faces is students who are making little progress online. Because of the pandemic, the program is all virtual and meets Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Blackwell hopes that in the future a hybrid model could help students who are facing challenges with Edgenuity, the learning platform students use to complete modules and earn credit for graduation.
Blackwell explained that the learning platform has academic vocabulary written at a higher level than some of the students are in. ¡Con Ganas! is a program for English learners of all levels.
“Because we do have such a wide range of our levels of English learners it can sometimes be a little bit challenging to just remember that each individual child needs something different,” Blackwell said.
¡Con Ganas! has five teachers that support the students.
“One really cool part about ¡Con Ganas! is that right now all of our teachers are ESL [English as a second language] teachers,” Blackwell said. “So teachers are able to break down the academic vocabulary words in a way that kids will be able to understand.”
¡Con Ganas! was already up and running when a report was released about RPS’s graduation rates during the 2019-2020 school year. During that year, RPS has the lowest on-time graduation rate (OGR) and the highest dropout rate in Virginia.
According to data, nearly 65% of Latino students and more than 61% of English learners dropped out during the 2019-2020 school year. Only 33.1% of Hispanic, Latino students graduated on time.
At the time, RPS noted that they had launched three programs, two specifically designed to support the system’s English learners and Latino students, to help improve the figures.
“When we received that data about our graduation rates and our dropout rates, there was definitely an added push from the division level to really think of strategies not just for us but across the division,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell said it was difficult to even look at the numbers when the data was released.
“We’ve had these issues for a while now … and we have some advocates within RPS that have been screaming this for the longest time. And I think because of the pandemic these struggles have been amplified. I think because of data reports like that, people are scared and then there is some fire lit,” Blackwell said.
From Blackwell’s point of view, the data report helped open a conversation about the work that needs to be done to help English-learner students.
“I think that the more light we shed on the problems that are actually happening within the community, that yes are amplified because of the pandemic, but really have been going on way long before. I think we need to continue to talk about it and the more that these conversations get in the hands and in the ears of people that can really do something about it then we can continue to move the needle,” she said.
RPS has shown and listened, Blackwell said. She explained that without their support, the program wouldn’t gave grown so fast.
“It has to do way more to do than with just getting kids to graduate on time and to not drop out. It’s a generational cycle,” Blackwell said. It’s something that can improve whole communities.”