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Alaska Native English Learner Students: Focusing on an Important but Often Overlooked Population

May 18, 2021

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Alaska is one of several states in which Indigenous students make up a large segment of the English learner (EL) student population: more than 40 percent of the state's EL students are Alaska Native. However, because policy and research have focused on the needs and experiences of immigrant-origin EL students, there are critical gaps in understanding how EL policies and practices function for Alaska Native students.

REL Northwest's latest report helps fill these gaps by providing information about Alaska Native kindergarten students classified as EL students, as well as EL identification and classification practices, EL service provision, and EL reclassification patterns specifically for Alaska Native students. Understanding whether and how policies and services meet the unique needs of Indigenous EL students can guide efforts—in Alaska and other states serving Indigenous EL students—to ensure that these students receive appropriate supports for heritage language, English language, and academic development.

Conducted in partnership with Alaska education leaders and drawing on Alaska state data from 2011/12 to 2018/19, the study found that:

Roughly a quarter of Alaska Native kindergarten students were classified as EL students. The percentage of kindergarten students who were Alaska Native EL students was highest in schools that were rural, schools that had higher rates of economic disadvantage, and schools that employed fewer (if any) English as a second language teachers.

The federal definition of EL students differs for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, yet the EL identification and classification processes in four districts were the same for Alaska Native and non-Alaska Native students.

Less than a third of district EL service plans described policies and services directed toward Alaska Native EL students, plans that included specific Alaska Native-centered policies and services focused on heritage language programs, community outreach, and collaboration between district Alaska Native education programs and EL programs.

By the end of grade 7, fewer Alaska Native EL students reached English proficiency benchmarks on Alaska's assessment of standard English proficiency, meaning that fewer Alaska Native students exited EL status compared with their non-Alaska Native EL peers.

Alaska Native Students as English Learner Students: Examining Patterns in Identification, Classification, Service Provision, and Reclassification
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