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MN Schools See Growing Population of Non-English Speakers

July 15, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

The number of Minnesota students from non-English speaking homes is booming. In 2008-09, nearly one out of eight Minnesota students came from non-English speaking homes, a jump of 96 percent from 1998-99. Not only is the number of students from non-English speaking homes on the rise, so is the variety of languages they speak. In 1998-99, 66 languages were spoken in the homes of Minnesota students. One decade later, that number is 93.

"It's important to note that not all students with a non-English home language need help. Some of them speak English very well," said Brian Koland, supervisor for English language learners in both the Roseville School District and the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District.

With the exception of immersion schools and rare instances in large districts, all students in Minnesota schools are taught in English. Translators are used only to explain the educational process to parents. Students are first given a test to judge their English ability and their level of education then a plan is developed to teach them English.

"We have to know if they come to us with a stitch of English at all," Koland said. "And knowing their educational background is huge. If the student is illiterate in their native language, they're not going to pick up English very quickly."

The preferred method to teach English in the elementary school level is to pull the student out of the mainstream class for 30 minutes or more each day to practice language with a licensed ESL teacher. Some schools offer integrated service where the ESL teacher enters the classroom and works with the teacher to meet the academic needs of ESL students.

At the high school level, ESL students attend an ESL class as part of their regular schedule. Some schools offer other academic support classes such as instruction in basic concepts and academic vocabulary.

Change in Non-English Language StudentsKoland said only those few districts with a large immigrant population such as Minneapolis, St. Paul, Anoka-Hennepin and Rochester will offer an education in a language other than English.

What fuels this language boom? Family and friends.

State demographic experts say that when members of an ethnic group locate and thrive in one area, their relatives and acquaintances are likely to follow. As generations of Hmong and Somali immigrants thrive, more Asian and African immigrants arrive. Of the top foreign languages spoken by Minnesota students in 1998-99, all remain on the list a decade later.

The number of students from homes where English is not the spoken language rose from 49,052 in 1998-99 to 96,053 in 2008-09, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. While the majority of Minnesota's 833,000 students come from English speaking homes, that number dropped 9 percent in the last decade, from 797,000 to 726,000. Of the major languages spoken in the state, Somali saw a hike of 461 percent with 1,897 students in 1998-99 to 10,637 in 2008-09. Spanish saw a 186 percent rise, moving from 12,391 to 35,387 students. Hmong grew 17 percent, from 18,775 to 21,886.


>Most of the new languages come from Africa. These include the East African languages of Anuak, Berber, Hausa, Oromo, Rundi, Sotho, Yao, Nuer and Malagasy; and Kamba, Luba, Wolof, Yoruba, Luganda and Ndelbele from West Africa. New languages from the American continents include Pampa, Garifuna and Haitian Creole. Asian languages Tibetan, Tongan, Kazakh and Uzbek are also new to Minnesota schools. Students have also brought the European languages of Bulgarian, Albanian, Ossetian, Belorussian, Macedonian and Maltese.

This influx comes at a time when English as a Second Language teachers are being asked to do more with their students. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 requires schools to test students once each year and measure their performance against an increasingly stringent standard. English language learners are counted as a subgroup for NCLB testing, although they do receive some concessions such as being allowed one year in school before they are tested in reading. Even with these concessions, nearly 430 Minnesota schools failed in 2009's NCLB test because of the performance of ESL students. This is another example of the failure of the NCLB law: Schools are punished because of immigration outside of their control.

More than one-quarter of the state's counties are losing more people through death and outmigration than they're gaining through birth. For many spots in Minnesota, immigration is the best chance for viability and schools are a part of the attraction.

Many view Minnesota as homogenously white and of European descent, but that's not the case. The strength of our state is grounded in the immigrant experience and schools are the crucible for this experience. Individualized plans to teach English to each new non-English speaking immigrant are well worth the time and investment.

Some fear new languages and cultures from the other side of the world. We believe the opposite. We welcome them.

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