"Going for the Gold": Successful Former English Language Learners' Experiences and Understandings of Schooling Open Access
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The well-documented achievement gap between English language learners (ELLs) and their native English-speaking peers (e.g., NCES, 2012) has prompted nationwide efforts to ensure that the growing population of ELLs in the U.S. meet academic proficiency standards and graduate from high school. Missing from educational studies on ELLs is an investigation of those students who succeed beyond minimum standards, defying the achievement gap. The research study presented in this paper contributes to this area by examining the experiences and understandings of five middle school ELLs who have demonstrated linguistic and academic success. These students are former ELLs who once were in need of language support but have now exited from ESL instructional services and are currently enrolled in advanced coursework. A basic qualitative approach (Merriam, 2009) was employed, and both social constructivist (Vygotsky, 1978) and critical (Solórzano & Yosso, 2003) theories guided the study. Four data sources from students were collected and analyzed: life history interviews, classroom observations, post-observation interviews, and photo-elicitation interviews. In addition, two of each student's teachers were interviewed individually for the purposes of triangulation. Descriptive data on district and school-wide ELL enrollment and achievement trends in advanced courses in the school was also analyzed to inform the findings. Yosso's (2005, 2006) model of Community Cultural Wealth served as a conceptual framework that informed data collection, but to the extent possible, all data was analyzed inductively (Creswell, 2007). The results of this study shed light on the experiences and perspectives of successful former ELLs. In general, findings indicated that these ELLs experienced schooling as social, "not that hard," busy, and technological. In analyzing the ways students understood their schooling, themes emerged in two interrelated categories: external agents and individual characteristics. Within external agents, data indicated the importance of role of family, peer interaction, and institutional support. The individual characteristics included the themes of negotiating agency, commitment to heritage, and motivation. Each theme is discussed with affiliated sub-themes that illuminate the various ways the themes were expressed in different students. This document concludes with broad interpretations drawn from the study based on findings and their relationship to existing research. The discussion emphasizes the complexity and heterogeneity of successful ELLs while also illuminating points of intersection in students' experiences. Lastly, implications are provided for raising expectations for ELLs and ensuring ELLs have equitable opportunities to realize academic success. These recommendations are specified for educators in the arenas of policy, practice, and research.