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A New Look at America's English Language Learners

A growing number of ELLs were born in the United States.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

For newcomers to Crete, Nebraska, there are two places to work: the place where they kill hogs and the place where they make dog food. Neither is as bad as you might think.

It’s a decent wage—and that’s why immigrants, mostly from Mexico, have come to Crete by the hundreds, making pit stops along the way in California, Washington State, and other, bigger towns in Nebraska.

But it’s not the money that makes them stay on for generations, transforming Main Street with tiendas and school lunch with tres leches cake.

It’s the promise of a better life. Especially for their children. And they’ve found it here, where a small school district and its teachers make good on their mission to educate everyone. “We’ll just tell anybody who listens—they’re our kids too,” says Jan Sears, director of special programs.

In 1996, Crete had 59 English Language Learners. By 2006, it had 560—a nearly 850 percent increase—and they now constitute one-third of the total student enrollment. This little town, surrounded by corn fields and grain mills, which used to be pretty much White—occasionally you’d hear Czech on the streets—has a majority-minority student population this year. At the high school, the homecoming queen is a Latina.

But it’s certainly not the only community in this country with sky-rocketing numbers of Spanish speakers. Across the United States, but especially in the new “gateway” states (which include heartland states like Nebraska and almost the entire Southeast), the sudden jump in English Language Learners (ELLs) has been both dramatic and challenging.

Since 1995, ELL enrollment in the United States has grown 57 percent, compared with less than 4 percent for all students, reaching a staggering 5.1 million ELL students (more than 10 percent of the total student population). In Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, growth rates exceeded 300 percent between 1995 and 2005.

But, say researchers, these aren’t all immigrants.

Myth: ELLs are so-called “border-crossers.”

Fact: More than half were born right here.

And that number is growing fast. Currently, second-generation students—defined as children born in the United States to at least one immigrant parent—constitute 23 percent of the nation’s children and 75 percent of elementary ELLs. And that number is expected to grow even larger. By 2015, researchers predict that nearly one of out of three students will be second-generation, mostly Hispanic.

Maybe you’re thinking: Does it matter to me whether they’re born in Lincoln or Oaxaca? An ELL is an ELL, right? But it would be a mistake to think that this new generation is exactly the same. While they’re likely to suffer the same achievement gaps as any English Language Learner, the second generation does have some advantages in overcoming them.

With the proper support from educators and policy-makers—and that means high-quality early education, appropriate language programs, especially bilingual and dual-language programs, and good assessments—they have the potential to do better in school than their parents. (Don’t forget the parents. You know family literacy makes a difference, as does parental involvement.)

What’s also slightly different about this generation is their ease in acculturation. They’ll learn English, no problem; but when they do, will they sacrifice their heritage language and culture?

Meet Giovanni.


Giovanni (second from right) plays with fellow

He is four. He has perfectly coiffed hair, a thin gold bracelet from his mama, and a teacher who adores him. As the autumn breeze kicks up across the Plains, he cruises around his preschool classroom, hunting down a favorite book and leaving a scented trail of men’s cologne in his wake. “I found it!” he exclaims, and then furiously flips the pages. “See!” he says, as a pop-up butterfly flies open. “There it is.”

Then he turns to a visitor: “I’m Giovanni,” he says. “I’m funny.”

Like all of the children in this room, Giovanni was born in the United States. Like all but two, he is busily learning  English, as well as a love of literacy and all the other skills that will make him a successful kindergartner next year.

“What are you learning?” he is asked.

“Nothing!” he answers. “I’m playing!”

Playing? Sure. Learning? Definitely. The two things go hand-in-hand in preschool. But two months ago, Giovanni couldn’t have even answered that question in English.

For English Language Learners, pre-K programs are especially valuable. With kindergartners widely expected to be ready for reading and writing, most five-year-olds don’t have time to nap anymore—never mind spend a few years learning a new language.

For them, federal programs like Head Start or Even Start give them exactly what those names promise: a chance to enter school with improved language skills and a readiness to learn.

Myth: Pre-K: Not worth the money!

Fact: Pre-K: A great investment.

Achievement gaps are formed early—by kindergarten, researchers say. But preschool is like preventative medicine. “It’s not just a good remedy for English Language Learners. It’s not just a good remedy for Hispanic students. It’s not just a good remedy for low-SES [socioeconomic status] students. It’s a good investment for all children,” writes Ellen Frede, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, in ETS Policy Notes.

But just 16 percent of the children of immigrants attend preschool, compared to 22 percent of all children, according to a Center for Law and Social Policies (CLASP) study—and the very lowest rates are found among families from Mexico.

In Crete, about 150 pre-kindergartners attend classes at the Blue River Family Center—the sole elementary school. Their teachers are fully certified school district employees who keep them hopping between interactive learning centers and pre-literacy lessons.



Amber Sterns with one of her ELL kindergartners.

When ELL kindergarten teacher Amber Sterns surveys her kindergartners one morning, she sees the results—not a single preschool alum in her group. Those children were ready to go into regular classrooms with less ELL support, she says.

Still, it’s another commonly held myth that younger students learn English faster than older ones. They probably do have better pronunciation than their older peers, but it takes years and years to master English—no matter what age you start.

A good deal of research also supports bilingual education for preschool. That is, if Crete were able to find certified staff, preschool in English and Spanish would have long-term benefits for Giovanni.

Meet Amy Barrientes.

On a recent evening, before her shift at the Farmland Foods meatpacking plant, where Barrientes is a “cleaner,” scrubbing the blood and guts from grinders, blenders, cutters, and other equipment, Barrientes slides onto a long bench in the Crete Elementary cafeteria. It’s time for her other work—learning English, just like her 13-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter, both born in this country, have already done.

After 14 years in America, Barrientes—a thin, youthful woman with dramatically arched eyebrows and carefully lined lips—can keep up in English conversation. But some questions still stump her, like this one: “Why are you here tonight?”

For work, perhaps? She waves her hand—“No, no.” She listens to the question again. She understands. She knows the answer. It’s just a matter of finding exactly the right words. She pauses. “I like English for help with my boy and daughter in school,” she says. “For homework,” she adds purposefully.

Myth: Immigrants don’t want to learn English.

Fact: The waiting list for Crete’s adult education program is five pages long.

The adults who pack the school’s media center, cafeteria, and other classrooms are working parents mostly. Many of them have been in this country for years—”11 years!”—but not long in Crete: “One week!” This may be the first place to offer free classes and they’re eager to accept. Plus, importantly, their employer here, Farmland Foods, works closely with the district, inviting a school employee to every new employee orientation.

Researchers agree that family literacy and parental education are critical to a student’s academic success. Fewer than 3 percent of Mexican immigrants to the United States have a college degree, and most work in low-paying jobs. Parental education and socioeconomic status are pretty reliable predictors of a child’s educational and financial future.

Programs that educate parents do a few things: First, they lift up the parents. Second, they help students. When parents are involved, research shows, student achievement and school attendance go up, and dropout rates go down, regardless of socioeconomics or ethnic background.

Third, they help you, the teacher. Involved parents can assist with literacy, reinforce lesson plans, and just plain make it clear to kids: School is important.

Myth: You can’t get these parents involved.

Fact: Yes, you absolutely can.

The language barrier is the number-one reason immigrant parents don’t show up to conferences. Other reasons include a lack of familiarity with the system and some cultural differences—maybe they think it’s not right to show up and ask such questions of the experts. (That’s you, by the way.)

But study after study shows that none of this means parents don’t care about school (another myth). In fact, most low-income parents, including Latinos with little or no English-language proficiency, say it’s “very important” to be involved in their child’s education.

“What people don’t understand is, the fear is greater than the desire,” says Lupe Avelar, a Crete Elementary family liaison. But this is a supportive community, notes Crete Elementary teacher Pam Essink. And “the more contact we have, the more comfortable parents are,” she says.

In Crete, the English language classes are just part of the solution. There’s also Hispanic Family Night a few times a year, parent-teacher conferences (with translators, of course) that attract a whopping 96 percent of the elementary school’s families, and quarterly meetings of a community-based Hispanic task force.

But the district also has Josie, Fabiola, and Maricela—three women who spend hours every day talking to parents about everything from bus routes to MMR vaccinations. For a lot of Spanish-speaking families, this cadre of family liaisons is the face of the Crete School District—and it’s an awfully friendly one.

It’s also one that looks like them. A decade ago, Josie Filipi used to be one of the women in the cafeteria at 8 p.m., sipping on a Squirt and studying adjectives. Now she’s got a son in college and a daughter at Crete High School, and she’s helping other families make the same journey.

For Amy Barrientes, it doesn’t end in the cafeteria either. Like most of Crete’s adult learners, she wants a GED. And then? College. “For nursing,” she says. Although, she admits with a wry smile, “I don’t like blood.”

Meet Alexs Cruz.

He’s a senior at Crete High School with college plans, who speaks unaccented English, likes math best, and has an after-school job at Burger King that interferes just a bit with his social life. A typical teenager? Maybe. Not every kid shares his part-time earnings with his mother so that she doesn’t have to work so incredibly hard at the meat-packing plant.

Like Giovanni, Alexs is a second-generation American, born in Los Angeles. He speaks Spanish at home, but quickly learned English “because I wanted to have friends!” He moved to Crete in 2000 with his mother, but during those first years he hardly saw her.

She worked long hours at Farmland, packaging meat for sale and saving money for the support of Alexs’ older brother, still in Guatemala. She came home, cooked, and fell into bed exhausted. Without her to talk to, Alexs pretty much forgot his Spanish.

Now he takes a “Spanish for Native Speakers” class in school, and has both “American” and Spanish-speaking friends. He is perfectly bilingual—and he plans to keep it that way. When he has kids some day, he’ll speak to them in “pure Spanish some days, English and Spanish on other days,” and their language and heritage will be preserved for another generation, he says confidently.

Still, the odds are against the future Cruzes. Research shows it takes about three generations to lose a native language. That was true 50 years ago, and it’s still the norm today, although that loss may be delayed in highly segregated communities, like South Florida or parts of California.

There is ugliness in anti-immigrant rhetoric about Spanish-speaking Americans not wanting to really be Americans. You might have heard about “my grandparents from Italy,” who came here and wanted to be American!

Myth: These newcomers all want to live in Little Havana!

Fact: They “fit in” just as fast as previous generations.

Meet Alexandra Navarro Clifton. More than 50 years ago, in a bit of spectacularly bad timing, her grandfather fled China for Cuba to escape Communism. Now Clifton, born in Miami, is a second-generation American teaching second-generation Americans at a high school in Palm Beach County, Florida.

Her students are fiercely protective of their heritage. On Flag Day, they wear Haitian, Colombian, and Cuban flags. They love it when she speaks in Spanish to them. They were shocked to realize Mr. Clifton is… “White? Miss! Your husband is White?” But, says Clifton, she sees that they have embraced American culture—its movies, its music, and, of course, its language, too.

Students see English as the key to social success—and parents often see its economic promise. Although a whole lot will say they want to maintain their home language, they don’t actually do it. Many believe—and research shows this isn’t true—that Spanish at home will make it harder for kids to learn English. By eighth grade, researchers have found a “near universal” preference among second-generation students for English in daily life.

Alexs is an exception—he says he likes both languages, depending on whom he is talking to. And both might be helpful for his future career as a math teacher. (His mother wants him to be an immigration lawyer.) “Being bilingual is important, especially in the United States now. There are so many bilingual kids.”

The families who have been most successful in maintaining a heritage language are the ones who buy children’s books in their home language, sing or play songs in that language, and include grandparents in the home.

Or, they rely on you. Many educators believe that bilingual education—that is, instruction in English and a heritage language—is the key to preserving language and culture across generations. But it doesn’t just help with family relationships. Research shows that the kids who learn “foundational skills” in their home language and maintain bilingualism generally do better in school. They have higher IQs, higher GPAs, and they end up more proficient in English, too.

Dual language programs—when English speakers and non-English speakers are placed in the same classroom, and instruction takes place in both languages—also have shown good results. But, as Crete’s Sterns points out, it’s not always easy to find teachers, especially outside of cities, who are bilingual themselves.

In Crete, ELL students take a more traditional road, usually immersed in English in all-day classes at first, then pull-out classes. And it appears to work: Last year, 96 percent of Crete’s fourth graders met or exceeded state expectations in reading, including 92 percent of ELLs. (By comparison, 89 percent of the state’s fourth graders did as well, including 77 percent of Nebraska’s ELLs.)

“The biggest myth is that these kids are slow learners,” says Crete High School ELL teacher Jennifer Wickard. “They’re not! They’re like every other student who might have slow moments, but they’re not slow learners.”

One challenge for Crete’s teachers—and this is true nationally as well—is involving immigrant and second-generation students in extracurricular activities. Except for boys’ soccer, Wickard notes, there are still barriers to after-school activities, some financial and some cultural. Alexs, for example, had been active in a multicultural club called Prism—everyone still talks about their 2006 Cinco de Mayo dance—but now he prefers to earn the extra cash.

Still, on a recent autumn evening, as a stiff breeze blew across the plains and parents left laughing from their English classes, it was hard not to see things changing. “For a lot of places around here, accepting an immigrant population will be the key to the success of their towns,” says Ron Salk, a former school board member who owns the local lumberyard and volunteers in the adult education program. “I don’t know what other towns do, but Crete has just bought into it.”

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