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Students Bring a World of Languages to the American Heartland

  • Steve Bell

The hallways of Northeast High School in Kansas City are typical of most urban high schools: crowded, noisy and packed with just about every imaginable kind of teenager. They are tall and short…slim, medium and stout…black, white and Asian. Near a red-haired, skinny kid with an attempt at a beard, there's a group of dark-eyed girls wearing Muslim headscarves. But it's the medley of languages that identifies Northeast as a "United Nations" among high schools.

By official count, these kids, collectively, come to Northeast speaking a total of at least 47 languages. Their families typically came to Kansas City to join relatives or friends, who had told them of the area's abundance of jobs, affordable housing and social services. The resulting multilingual, multicultural environment presents many challenges. But teacher Jan says meeting those challenges together has united the diverse student body into a true school community. "The students feel that they are welcomed," she says. "They may have a difference in their language or their cultures or their routines at home, yet they feel that they belong to a school."

Roughly 25% of the kids at Northeast are taking courses in English as a Second Language (ESL). Nearly as many are proficient in English, but come from homes where it is not spoken. Students group together in like-language clusters at first. Using dictionaries and help from friends, they wend their way through the inconsistencies of a new language.

These young people know the frustration of being able to read English better than they can speak it. But Cambodian immigrant Thi Da is determined to learn. "Because I am in America," she says, "I have to speak American." Her classmate, Safa, from Somalia, says some students don't have much patience with kids who don't speak English. "They don't know who you are or where you come from," she explains. "It's like, 'What kind of language do you speak? How come you can't speak this language?'"

Iraqi immigrant Ruba agrees. "I come here," she says. "I don't see somebody speaking Arabic and so, like, I understand nothing…and it's real hard. But now I learn this and it's easy for me." Richard came to Northeast High from Senegal, and understands the importance of learning English. "You gotta, like, get the dictionary to help us," he says. "And then I gotta work hard to understand, you know, what they say. That's why we came here, you know. You gotta learn and have a good education."

Even as they struggle with conversational English, their teacher Jan Stapinski says many of these learners have already become translators. "Many of our students that are here are more proficient in English than their parents," she says. Therefore, "many of our students are getting some adult responsibilities at home in reading things that come in the mail and really communicating to their parents the things they need to know on a day-to-day basis."

Ms. Stapinski didn't start out to be an ESL teacher, but she grew up in a home where Hungarian and Polish were spoken. She says that background gives her an appreciation for the merging of cultures…and a reason to believe that the kids in her class, like her own parents, can become American success stories. "It's wonderful to reflect on and ask my mother questions [such as] 'Do you remember back when?,'" she says, "and finding that there are still some similarities. 'How did you pick that up?'…'How can I teach my students that?'"

Ms. Stapinski says the students at Northeast High have "one of the most awesome opportunities…to be in such a diverse group every day." And she expects those opportunities to reap rewards. "I think our school will turn out the workers of the world that will be so sensitive to people's religions, people's cultures and people's beliefs," she says.

Northeast seems to be approaching Ms. Stapinski's expectations culturally, socially--and educationally, as well. Several of the ESL groups are achieving at a level above the school averages. Vietnamese, Iraqi and Iranian students have graduation rates that exceed the school norm, and they're more likely to go on to college. Sudanese students are among the more recent arrivals, and they also seem to be doing well. School officials point to family educational values and the students' choice of friends as important factors that affect the achievement of these immigrant students.

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