The American Rescue Plan (ARP) dedicated $122 billion towards K–12 education, 20 percent of which has been earmarked “to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions,” especially for students disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This funding should, of course, be used to provide short-term targeted support that gives children opportunities to accelerate their academic progress, but it should also be used to begin implementing sustainable programs that can address learning gaps in the long term.

Any effort to reach students disproportionately affected by the pandemic must address the needs of English learners (ELs). These students have always been underserved and underfunded by the U.S. education system. And now, data suggests that these students have been particularly left out of learning opportunities with the switch to virtual learning. Last fall, a study from California’s PACE research center found that “learning loss has been more dramatic for ELs than for others” on math and literacy assessments. Other studies during the pandemic have found that ELs had an increased rate of receiving failing grades compared to their English-speaking counterparts, and ELs have especially high rates of chronic absenteeism.

Fortunately, research shows that there are strategies for building on these students’ strengths to advance their linguistic and academic development. In particular, schools should consider using ARP funding to create intensive tutoring programs for ELs. This could help accelerate these students’ learning when schools return this fall and into the future. Effective tutoring programs are long-term, consistent, and individualized, and use a curriculum that aligns with their classroom’s goals. This sort of targeted intensive tutoring is recommended as a best practice for addressing learning loss, especially for historically marginalized students. It could be particularly impactful for ELs suffering from the pandemic’s challenges.

Community-based tutoring programs that focus on multilingual development help ELs master academic content and ease their transition to in-person learning. By creating or increasing these programs through ARP funding, schools can address learning loss and support their growing populations of ELs.

Multilingualism as a Tool for Success

To be maximally effective, tutoring should not only be conducted in English, but should whenever possible support ELs multilingual development by utilizing their home language. This may seem counterintuitive. However, multilingualism is not only an asset in our increasingly globalized world: research also shows that learning to read and write in an ELs’ native language helps them gain reading and writing skills in English. Targeted tutoring programs in a student’s native language have been shown to increase literacy in their native language. Developing ELs’ emerging bilingualism helps them succeed, and any tutoring program should be designed to support them in both English and their native languages.

However, the persistent shortage of bilingual teachers makes it challenging for schools to provide instruction—let alone targeted and individualized tutoring—that builds language skills in English and the student’s native language. While this is true for all ELs, it is especially true for non-Spanish-speaking ELs, who make-up roughly 25 percent of the English learners in the country. There is considerable spread and diversity within that 25 percent of the English-learner population. The next most common native language for ELs is Arabic, with just 2.7 percent of ELs speaking the language. In essence, while it is difficult to find enough bilingual Spanish-speaking teachers, it can be even harder when an EL’s native language is not Spanish.

“It’s just such a joyful thing for that whole community”

Programs that partner with community-based organizations and community-members could be a solution. Community tutoring programs hire bilingual adults from communities already disproportionately affected by the pandemic, while simultaneously creating an opportunity for students to continue building skills in their native language. In Washington D.C., Center City Public Charter Schools recognize the value of engaging with and supporting their linguistically diverse families. About 55 percent of their students are English-learners. Alicia Passante, the EL Program Manager at Center City, explains that leveraging families’ linguistic expertise in developing multilingual students, and even hiring community-based translators and teacher assistants, is integral to supporting their ELs: “I can tell just from looking from afar that it’s just such a joyful thing for that whole community. And if we can do more of that, and like really support, that’s supporting the whole child in my opinion.” In order to ensure their students become proficient in their home language, Center City recognizes that the parents “really are the experts and the skill set that we can rely on to make sure they grow in that aspect of their lives.” By viewing members of the students’ communities as linguistic and cultural resources, schools may find it easier to find tutors who speak the native language of all of their ELs—enriching their knowledge of their native language and improving their ability to learn to read and write in English.

Community-based tutoring programs must be sure to follow best practices to prepare tutors to work with students. While studies have shown that a variety of training-models can be effective, the most important factors for successful tutoring programs are well-developed orientation processes for tutors, effective tutoring materials, and consistent communication between teachers and tutors. Another important factor for success is tutor retention, which allows for consistency and relationship-building between ELs and tutors. By using ARP funding to compensate tutors, community members will be able to dedicate more time to training and tutoring. This model will help ensure that the tutoring program is sustainable and leads to improved learning outcomes for ELs both in the short and long term.

Comfort and Safety in the Classroom

While schools are preparing to accelerate learning for students to make up for content-based learning gaps, many educators fear that if schools do not intentionally address mental health and social-emotional learning, students will be less able to focus on academic content. Studies show that affective components of learning, including self-esteem, anxiety, and motivation, play a huge role in the success of an EL in learning English. During the pandemic, many ELs faced illness and death in their families, along with housing and food insecurity, all of which could negatively affect mental health. Additionally, long-term absences could make the transition back to full-day, in-person school even more difficult and overwhelming, potentially slowing learning. Addressing social-emotional learning could involve direct lessons on relationship-building or emotional awareness, and time dedicated to checking in with students. In addition to accelerating learning by reinforcing academic content, a community-based tutoring program could further support ELs by helping them feel more comfortable in an in-person setting.

In Washington, D.C., Briya Public Charter School simultaneously enrolls immigrant adults and their children to provide a holistic, family-centered, dual-generation, multilingual educational program. Even before the pandemic, they recognized the importance of viewing community members as resources in education. “Most, if not all, of the infant and toddler teachers are former students” of the dual-generation program, says Ashley Simpson Baird, a former teacher who now helps the school evaluate its programming. Briya programming is designed with the understanding that when students feel comfortable and safe in school, they will be more open to learning and growth. By bringing multilingual and multicultural instructors into the classroom, students and parents “feel safe sharing things that may be more uncomfortable to share with someone if you have to say it in English.”

In addition to hiring community-based instructors, Briya uses the dual-generation program to give parents the tools to support their children in learning at home. Parents are encouraged to support their children’s education in whatever language with which they are most comfortable. “We know that building linguistic skills in any language are transferable to English or any additional languages that you’re learning.” During the pandemic, thanks to Briya’s focus on including parents in their child’s education and community-based hires’ knowledge of the specific challenges in their communities, they were able to tailor their programs to best serve students during the pandemic. As a result, children’s outcomes were almost on par with how they are in a normal year. At a school where more than 90 percent of families qualify for free or reduced-price lunch subsidies and nearly all speak a non-English language at home, community-based hiring is a key strategy for supporting campus’ cultural and linguistic diversity and the economic wellbeing of the community.

The ARP funds should make it possible for more schools to create, support, and expand community-based tutoring programs.

A Path Forward

ELs and their families were especially hard hit by the effects of the pandemic. As students return to the classroom in the Fall, it is important to remember that even as we “return to normal,” students will face long-lasting effects from the pandemic. While schools and ELs face substantial challenges, we also learned important lessons about supporting students in new and different ways—including engaging with ELs families to include them in their child’s education. This is a moment to rethink and redesign equity in education by learning from what it meant to fundamentally change how school works. When planning for the upcoming school year, we should not forget the lessons we learned from the pandemic and the lasting challenges that ELs will face. We know that ELs benefit from learning their native language and from working with community-based instructors, and this knowledge should be used when schools decide how to use their ARP funding. Community-based tutoring programs have the potential to be a long-term solution that closes learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic.