Career-focused graduation pathway for English learners takes root in Perry Township

A mural at Southport High School in Perry Township schools depicts the countries where students lived before immigrating to Indiana. Perry Schools has the second largest population of English language learner students in the state. (Aleksandra Appleton)

For over a decade, Southport High School teacher Amy Peddie has led classes of students who are English language learners through the intricacies of getting ready for college, like filling out applications, finding financial aid, and writing personal essays. 

This year, she’s teaching a class with a new emphasis: Getting ready for a career by writing cover letters, resumes, and professional emails. In a recent exercise, students contacted companies they were unfamiliar with to ask about job and training opportunities. 

“One student said, ‘I thought this was an [English learner] class, but this feels like a work class,’” Peddie said. 

Peddie’s course is part of a new graduation pathway for students who are learning to speak and read in English, where students can train for the workforce during high school and graduate with a job and a diploma in hand. It’s the first local graduation pathway in the state to specifically cater to English learner students who have limited English proficiency.   

This pathway is part of a growing emphasis in Indiana and nationwide on preparing students for jobs without the necessity of a two- or four-year degree, as college-going rates have declined from several years ago and skilled trades face a worker shortage. 

In Indiana, lawmakers have pushed to “reinvent high school” to make it more relevant to in-demand careers.

At Perry schools, which educate around 4,600 English learner students, the second largest population in the state, the pathway also gives students another way to meet Indiana’s graduation requirements and local hiring needs. Like the college-going class, it aims to help newly arrived students navigate a potentially unfamiliar process. 

“If your choice is college, great, but if not, that’s not something to look down on,” said Southport Principal Amy Boone. “We want to have options and opportunities.” 

Southport has around 600 students receiving English language services, Boone said, and district officials say they’re expecting a record enrollment this year of students who have recently relocated to the United States from other countries. In Indiana, this population grew 52% from 2017 to 2022. 

The population is not only growing, but changing, Boone said: More students have arrived in recent years with less experience in formal education, both as a result of the pandemic and international conflict. 

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But once they enroll, they’re still required to meet Indiana graduation requirements that include demonstrating postsecondary skills. Students with extenuating circumstances could be granted a waiver, but this approach will be limited going forward under a state law passed this year.

If English learners are missing reading and writing skills in their first languages, a traditional career and technical education course may be inaccessible, even with the aid of translation, Boone said. 

The new graduation pathway provides students who enrolled in U.S. schools in seventh grade or later a way to meet graduation requirements through classes on business math and personal financial responsibility, as well as internships and mock interviews. It’s also meant to help students develop their English proficiency through speech and English as a New Language classes. 

In addition to being the first such local pathway for graduation in Indiana, Perry’s track for English learners is one of just two in the state that equips students with general career skills, rather than focusing on a specific trade or industry. 

This year, an initial section of students piloting the pathway has already discussed what they hope to do after high school — answers that included working as barbers or cosmetologists. 

Peddie said she hopes to take them on field trips to visit local salons and see that work up close. But she’d also like to introduce them to other industries, like manufacturing, where local companies are actively hiring.

Boone said the key to the program is to balance student interests with community needs. 

Local staffing companies that already place the parents of Southport students in jobs are working with Perry schools on the new pathway. 

The district itself could employ students to work on campus beautification projects, and then hire them after graduation knowing they have the required skills, Boone said. Southport High School, for example, recently hired a current student to work in the cafeteria. 

“There’s been a pendulum shift,” Boone said. “We pushed for a long time on college, but there’s value in the trades, too.”

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

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