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Paving Pathways for Multilinguals

Meghan Gregoire-Smith starts a new series on career and technical education (CTE) with a guide to leveraging CTE in support of secondary multilingual learners

Career and technical education (CTE) courses and programs offer opportunities for multilingual learners (MLs) to meet their educational and career goals. State education agencies and school districts are required to provide MLs equal opportunities to participate in all available programs and activities, including CTE programs (U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, & U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, 2015).  Equitable access to these programs is not only a right, but a promising pathway for preparing MLs for postsecondary education and careers.

CTE courses and programs prepare students for the workforce in a wide variety of industries and occupations such as architecture and construction, education and training, finance, hospitality and tourism, and information technology (ACTE, 2022). Secondary students that successfully complete CTE coursework can earn industry certifications and licenses which support them with transitioning into postsecondary education and careers. In this article I will define what ML representation looks like in secondary CTE programs, explain why CTE is an important option for MLs, explore barriers and potential solutions for ML participation and success in CTE programs, and offer ideas for next steps in this work.

What does ML representation look like in CTE?

MLs are all students whose parents or guardians report speaking one or more language(s) other than or in addition to English at home. MLs may or may not qualify for English Language Development (ELD) services based on their most current English language proficiency (ELP) scores (Snyder et al., 2023), but for the purposes of this article, I am specifically focusing on MLs that do qualify for ELD services. At the secondary level, as of 2020, MLs that qualify for ELD services account for 6.78% of the public-school high school population. They represent 7.7% of 9th graders, 7.4% of 10th, 6.4% of 11th, and 5.6% of 12th graders (National Education Statistics, 2023).  These numbers are significant as we explore MLs’ equitable access to CTE programs.  

During the 2019-20 school year, MLs students across the country participated in high school CTE programs at roughly the same percentage rate as their share of the high school population in their state (Sugarman, 2023). For example, in North Carolina, MLs students make up 5.1% of total enrollment in high school and 5.3% of CTE participants in high school. While these findings are certainly encouraging, the data does not disaggregate based on different ML groups, such as by ELP level. It is important for schools and districts to analyze their own data on ML participation in CTE programs and to use that information as a springboard for further investigation to identify possible issues around access for MLs. For instance, upon investigation, a district may find that MLs that have recently arrived in the U.S. and are at the beginning stages of English language proficiency are underrepresented in their CTE programs due to limited outreach conducted in ML families’ home languages about the CTE programs available, or CTE program entrance requirements that make it challenging for these students to take part. This finding could then prompt the district to develop targeted outreach to this group of MLs through collaboration between ELD teachers and family liaisons.

Why is CTE an important option for MLs?

In April 2022, the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) released an infographic on preparing MLs for postsecondary education and careers through CTE. The infographic highlights many of the benefits of CTE for MLs, including higher rates of high school graduation, college attendance, and employment for CTE concentrators versus non-CTE concentrators. It also notes that CTE programs open doors to careers in high-demand occupations that have elevated growth and earning potential in fields such as technology, engineering, healthcare, and advanced manufacturing.

Additionally, CTE programs include a hands-on approach to learning that tends to be concrete and provides immediate relevance for MLs. Many CTE classrooms provide regular opportunities for productive talk in which students are working together to solve a problem or create something, making these classrooms an ideal place to learn and practice language. These features of CTE classrooms can have a positive impact on language acquisition and should be intentionally supported and planned for.  

It is critical that districts and schools work to ensure equitable ML representation in CTE programs and to promote high-quality educational experiences for the MLs enrolled in these programs. Our current workforce demands diverse, multilingual candidates and MLs are uniquely equipped with these skills. CTE programs are one way for MLs to leverage these skills to be competitive in today’s workforce. When MLs are intentionally included in secondary CTE programs, they can have the opportunity to succeed in whichever path they choose. However, when educators are not intentional about including MLs in CTE programs or don’t support their equitable access to CTE content through research-based instructional strategies, they may inadvertently do MLs a disservice.


When MLs are intentionally included in secondary CTE programs, they can have the opportunity to succeed in whichever path they choose.


What barriers exist for ML access to and engagement in CTE programs?

While CTE programs offer many benefits for MLs, it is important to acknowledge that barriers do exist. The first layer of barriers that some MLs face is access to CTE programs. Students and families may not be aware of the opportunities to engage in CTE programs within their school or district due to limited multilingual outreach. Schools or districts may also have specific rules for enrollment into a CTE program, such as a minimum grade point average or a prerequisite academic class, which could lead to MLs being disproportionately kept out of CTE programs (Sugarman, 2023). Issues with scheduling CTE coursework into MLs’ course of study may prevent students from being able to fully access CTE opportunities in their school. Schools often find this especially difficult for newcomer MLs who may have a number of core academic courses that have to complete in order to accumulate all the credits needed to graduate (Sugarman, 2023). Additionally, transportation and program fees can become an issue for students. For instance, some CTE programs or classes may be held at a different location than a students’ home school or there may be participants or industry certification fees associated with the program. Beyond access to programs, challenges around educator preparedness and appropriate instruction may exist. CTE teachers may not have specialized pedagogical training in working with MLs. Without training in best practices, instruction will not likely be scaffolded to meet the strengths and needs of MLs.

How can schools and districts support ML participation and success in CTE programs?

While barriers exist for MLs’ access to and engagement in CTE programs, there are several strategies schools and districts can take to support MLs students’ participation and success in these programs.

  • ML recruitment and retention efforts are necessary for MLs to successfully engage in CTE programs. Schools and districts can utilize trusted staff, like ELD teachers, counselors, and family liaisons to encourage participation and support the application process for ML students and families. They can also share information about the benefits and address any concerns or misconceptions families may have about the programs (Advance CTE & ACTE, 2024; Najarro, 2023; Gregoire-Smith, 2022). Multilingual outreach should be intentional and align to the needs of students and families, including written materials, phone calls, and social media posts. Schools and districts can also elevate the voices of current ML CTE students with site visits to encourage MLs entering high school to participate. For example, MLs could shadow current ML CTE students during their classes, or ML CTE students could present their experience in CTE and talk about the benefits of the program. To retain MLs in CTE programs, schools can find creative ways to include flexible learning opportunities such as offering early morning or evening classes, creating summer school options, and providing work-based learning credit for jobs students already have (Najarro, 2023; Sugarman, 2023).
  • Educator preparedness can greatly impact MLs experience and success within a CTE program.To ensure educators are prepared to meet the strengths and needs of the MLs in their courses, professional learning should focus on implementing research-based best practice in instruction and curriculum for MLs (Advance CTE, 2022). Such strategies include the use of peer learning opportunities, explicit vocabulary development, individualized writing support, academic language mini-lessons, and exam preparation using multiple modalities (Gregoire-Smith, 2023a, 2023b). ELD teachers can support this learning through coaching, co-teaching, curriculum writing, and delivering professional development (Advance CTE & ACTE, 2024; Office of the English Language Acquisition & U.S. Department of Education, 2022). The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) identifies MLs as a “special population” under the law and allows funds to be used to hire, recruit, and train teachers. It specifically calls for professional learning “to give educators of students who are English learners [MLs] in career and technical education programs or programs of study the knowledge and skills to provide instruction and appropriate language and academic support services to those students, including the appropriate use of curricula and assessments” (p. 12 – 13).
  • Collaboration across departments and offices has the potential to greatly impact MLs access to and success in CTE programs. ELD departments cannot be solely responsible for the serving MLs, it must be a collaborative effort. When departments collaborate, there are opportunities to join forces in providing equitable access to CTE for MLs. For example, the CTE and ELD departments can come together to evaluate their current policies and practices related to MLs and CTE, identify areas of strength and need, and develop plans to address issues they unsurfaced. Additionally, collaboration efforts can be used to plan for and fund both teachers and professional learning. In fact, Title III of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) explicitly allows funding to provide CTE to MLs (Sugarman, 2023). In their 2022 brief around supporting MLs in CTE, Advance CTE and ACTE call for “federal policy braiding” in which leaders leverage federal funding from Perkins V and ESSA Title III to improve CTE for MLs.

What are our next steps in moving this work forward?

School and district leaders are in a powerful position to ensure CTE is leveraged in their context to support MLs in achieving their educational and career goals. Begin by collaboratively reviewing your context using the following guiding questions.

  • ML Representation: Is the percentage of MLs in your CTE program smaller than, about the same as, or greater than the percentage of MLs at the school? Do discrepancies exist based on ELP levels? If you don’t know, how might you find out?
  • Opportunities and Barriers: Do any barriers exist for MLs entering CTE programs in your school or district (e.g., scheduling, proficiency level requirements, or prerequisites)? If so, what are those barriers and how might they be removed?
  • Recruiting and Retaining MLs in CTE Programs: What strategies does your school or district use to recruit (e.g., multilingual outreach, trusted staff, site visits) and retain (e.g., flexible learning opportunities, work-based learning credit) MLs in CTE programs?
  • Educator Preparedness: What experience and training related to working with MLs do CTE educators in your context have? Are there opportunities for professional learning related to supporting MLs?
  • Collaboration Across Departments: To what extent does collaboration across departments in support of MLs exist in your context? How might you work to increase collaboration in support of MLs access to and participation in CTE programs?  

Secondary CTE programs offer exciting opportunities for MLs to achieve their personal education and career goals. And it is imperative that schools and districts take the time to leverage CTE as an opportunity for MLs. Wherever you are in the process, I encourage you to celebrate your current successes and consider the idea presented here to prioritize your next steps.


Advance CTE. (2022, June). Making good on the promise: Improving equity and access to quality CTE programs for English learners.

Advance CTE, Association for career and Technical Education (ACTE). (2024, February). Supporting English learners in career technical education.

Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). (2022, February). What is career and technical education?. 

Gregoire-Smith, M. (2022, October). EL advocacy case study #3: Multilingual leaners in career and technical education programs during COVID-19. SupportEd, National Education Association (NEA).

Gregoire-Smith, M. (2023a, April). Supporting English learners’ participation in high-quality CTE. Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE).

Gregoire-Smith, M. (2023b). Supporting multilingual learners’ participation in secondary career and technical education programs series. SupportEd.

Najarro, Ileana. (2023, April 21). How districts can ensure English learners have CTE access. Education Week.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). English Learners in Public Schools. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

Office of the English Language Acquisition, U.S. Department of Education. (2022). Career and Technical Education: Preparing K-12 Multilingual Learners for Postsecondary Education and Careers.

Perkins V Act. (2018).

Snyder, S., Staehr Fenner, D., Smith, S., & Singh, J. (2023, March). Terminology to describe multilingual learners: labels and their implications. SupportEd.

Sugarman, Julie. (2023, April). Unlocking opportunities: Supporting English learners’ equitable access to career and technical education. Migration Policy Institute.  

U.S. Census Bureau. (202). Characteristics of people by language spoken at home, 2020 American community survey 5-year estimates subject tables. The Census Bureau.

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, & U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. (2015, January). Dear colleague letter: English learner students and limited English proficient parents.

Meghan Gregoire-Smith, M.A., is a multilingual leaner (ML coach) with SupportEd (, a woman-owned small business dedicated to advocacy and educational equity for multilingual learners and their families. In this role, she provides professional development, coaching, and technical assistance to organizations, districts, and educators in support of multilingual learners and their families. She is the co-author of Unlocking Multilingual Learners’ Potential: Strategies for Making Content Accessible, 2nd Edition.

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