Since 1995, the number of students in U.S. schools who are not native English speakers has shot up 60 percent. In 20 states, the number has doubled.
But these so-called "English language learners," or ELL's, drop out in huge numbers — and the ones who stay don't always catch up.
Although large urban school districts seem to be having the most trouble with these kids, one teacher in Boston — Francisco Ruiz — refuses to give up on them.
Ruiz runs the ELL program at The English High School in Jamaica Plain. It's one of the most successful in Boston, even though its dropout rate is nearly 50 percent.
According to one major study, many of the more than 24,000 students in the Boston public schools who are not native English speakers are not doing well academically, especially Spanish-speakers.
"We knew that if we don't take care of the Latino population in Boston, Boston's educational system as a whole will not improve," Ruiz says.
A Culture Of Excess
Ruiz, a short, intense, wiry man, says many ELL students drop out because they don't feel like they fit in. They hate having an accent and don't want to be made fun of.
But there's something else that Ruiz says he's constantly battling. He calls it "a culture of excess." He hates the rap music, the baggy jeans, the really, really short skirts and the obsession with sport heroes.
"And that's my stubbornness," he says. "I stayed away from American football and I've stayed away from baseball purposefully."
Ruiz knows it's an "incredible irony," he says, that he lives in Boston and he doesn't like baseball. The captain on the school's team translates for the coach so the coach can communicate with the other team members. The coach knows he needs to learn Spanish.
Ruiz says it should be the other way around. The players should be learning English from their coach.
Still, some of Ruiz's students, like Genisis Mejia and Michael Nicamor del Valle, have had great success.
Genisis, 17, and Michael, 15, have worked really hard to learn proper English, including correct grammar and a good vocabulary. Not slang or street English, says Ruiz.
Thanks to his ELL teachers, Michael says he was well-prepared for the transition to English-only classes.
"There are some teachers who are good here, like my English language arts teacher," Michael says. "He's really good. He teaches you. My algebra teacher is also good. Everyday they ask me for my homework. When I'm done with my homework they make me read and stuff."
As for Genisis, she says she's ready for college in the fall.
"Like you have teachers that support you if they see that you're determined they'll help you a lot and talk to you about college," she says. "I want to study criminal justice 'cause I want to be, like, a detective."
Genisis and Michael have lost their accent and their shyness. Ruiz looks on with obvious pride. He says he sees himself in his students. Not just Latinos but the Somali, Ethiopian and West African kids who make up the rest of the ELL population at English High.
'You Are Privileged'
It's that closeness that makes Ruiz a good teacher, a mentor, and — in some ways — a role model. Like his students, Ruiz is an immigrant. He arrived as a 23-year-old law student fleeing death squads and El Salvador's bloody civil war. He says he flew to Boston from Los Angeles.
"And I walked from the airport," Ruiz says. "I had $5, and did not know how to say 'I'm looking for a job' in English."
Ruiz says it took him three years to learn English. It was his ticket to college. That's the goal, says Ruiz. That's what he drills into his students. It's what drives Ruiz as a teacher to see his students accomplish what to them and to their families may have seemed impossible.
"Yes! Yes! I mean, you have all the opportunities right here. You don't have any excuses," Ruiz says. "And I tell them: 'You are privileged. Just remember. You are privileged.'"
It's mid-afternoon. Salsa music seeps out from a classroom right before the last bell. A torrent of students spills into the streets.
Ruiz says The English High School was founded in 1821, making it the oldest public high school in America. It opened with lots of non-English speaking immigrants who struggled but prospered, says Ruiz. And there's no reason the newest generation of immigrants won't do the same.