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In Minnesota, the world in the classroom

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Kyaw Kyaw Lwin has gotten used to snow
Senior Kyaw Kyaw Lwin flicks some snow off a tree on his classmate on the way back to Humboldt High School on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, in St. Paul.
Photo by Anthony Kwan

Kyaw Kyaw Lwin, an English learner at Humboldt High School in St. Paul, thought he would surely die in the Minnesota chill if he didn't get help. There was only one problem: He didn't have the words to ask. 

• Related Special Report: Teaching The World In Minnesota

Just a day after arriving from a refugee camp in Thailand in the winter of 2008, the then-13-year-old Lwin spoke no English and had gotten lost in the city without a coat. 

"I tried asking several people for help even though I couldn't speak any English," he says. "I was really nervous and shy." Six hours later, he says, a woman brought him to a license center, where the police were called to bring him home.  

After that experience, Lwin, a Pwo Karen speaker, says he committed himself to learning English by talking in class. "I became loquacious," he says. 

The challenge of learning English can have many dimensions for the thousands of Minnesota students identified as English language learners. For some, like Lwin, it is a matter of survival in a new country that offers welcome shelter from the harsh conditions of their homelands. For others, it is a tough transition away from the comfortable familiarity of their native cultures. For all, it takes resolve, resilience and time -- sometimes more time than they have left in school -- to finally feel at home, and at their best, with the words around them.

"Success is to survive."

Fleeing strife
Lwin and his family came to Minnesota after fleeing the violence and abuse of the military regime in Myanmar, also known as Burma. They came by way of Thailand, where they lived in hiding before moving to a refugee camp and then finding homes in various places across the globe. 

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Lwin of his chance to come to the United States. Even so, he says, he misses his five brothers and sister. Two of his sisters also came to the United States, but his other siblings live in Thailand and Burma.

Such tales of strife have been common in Minnesota's English language classrooms since the first wave of refugees in from Southeast Asia arrived in the mid-1970s.  

Today, Minnesota's high number of asylum seekers and refugees make the state stand out from others, says Michele Garnett McKenzie, advocacy director at The Advocates for Human Rights, an organization that helps immigrants understand their human rights in the United States. 

Census data show that Minnesota has the highest population of Somali and the second highest population of Hmong -- people drawn here by efforts of churches and nonprofits like the Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and Catholic Charities to sponsor families. These agencies work with the U.S. government to help set up homes, jobs and education for refugees or those seeking asylum. 

Humboldt High School senior Kyaw Kyaw Lwin works o
Humboldt High School senior Kyaw Kyaw Lwin tackles a homework problem during an engineering class at St. Paul College on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, in St. Paul.
Photo by Anthony Kwan

"I've had families pour their hearts out," says Martha Swanson, coordinator of the New Families Center in Minneapolis, which helps place children of immigrant families in schools. "I've heard a lot of deep things, and I've also experienced a lot of joy."  

Many of the children of those immigrants end up at Wellstone International High School in Minneapolis, which focuses exclusively on English language learners. The school has students representing 19 of the 210 primary home languages and dialects in Minnesota schools today.

"It's a very diverse place. You hear all the different languages the kids are speaking, and they are all learning together," Swanson says.

Aimee Fearing, Wellstone's assistant principal, says that for some of the students, "success is to survive." For most, it simply means a better life.

Seeking opportunity
Wei Liu arrived as a sophomore at Wellstone this year from Changsha, China, after his mother married an American.

"We wanted more freedom, respect and good jobs," says Liu, whose mother works as a waitress at the Mall of America. "People are generous here and help you."

Liu says he learned some English in China by conversing with his stepfather and reading English subtitles on television. In the classroom, though, English is still a challenge. He finds it difficult to talk with other students and speaks his native language with other Chinese students. 

"Sometimes people speak English too fast, so I do not know what they are speaking," says Liu. He says the language barrier makes it hard to make friends. Writing, he says, is much easier. 

"I miss Chinese food, and my family."

Learning to adapt to school takes time for many English learners. Jana Hilleren, director of the Multilingual Department in Minneapolis, says that while students coming from other countries might know some English, it takes seven to 10 years for students to become proficient in academic English. 

If a student arrives with little English and only three or four years of school left, academic challenges abound. Liu, for instance, works part time on the cleaning team at Cub Foods, where his stepfather also works, and, although he would like to go to college, he says his primary ambition is to get out of school and get married. 

For his classmate Qi Chen, 16, who left the Chinese city of Fuzhou three years ago, school is even less fun. The difficulty of learning English is compounded by homesickness, he says. 

"I miss Chinese food, and my family," says Chen, whose father was a vegetable farmer in China before he became a driver at a Chinese restaurant in Minnesota.

"There were a lot of bicycles," says Chen of his hometown, a city of 7 million in southeastern China, "and quite a few people."

Math is Chen's favorite subject, but he does not like learning English, especially when his parents and friends don't speak it. "It's difficult," he says, adding that his school day is too long without enough breaks. "I can't learn." 

Time makes a difference
Time made all the difference for David Rodriguez-Ruacho, a Spanish speaker and a senior at Patrick Henry High School, who does not remember much about his birthplace, Mexico. He came to the United States as an infant, part of a family of first-generation immigrants to Minnesota. 

While Mexican immigration has come to a standstill recently, Hispanics of Mexican origin number more than 180,000 in Minnesota, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Nearly 66,000 Hispanics are enrolled in school, making up 7 percent of the total student body in the state.  

Rodriguez-Ruacho says his family came to pursue the typical American dream, and while his parents don't have high-paying jobs - his father is a construction worker and his mother also works -- they are doing just fine, he says. 

"My dad says you have to do good in school and work hard to have good things and do better than [they] are," he says. "You have to work hard now to work smart later."

Rodriguez-Ruacho also finds himself the translator for his parents, a job that often goes to the second-generation children of immigrants. He takes it on willingly. In fact, he chose to attend a dual immersion middle school, with programs taught in Spanish and English, so he could become fluent in both his native language and that of his adopted country. Of the two languages, he says Spanish was harder to learn. "There are so many more accents and punctuations that go in a sentence," he says.

Now he is hoping to attend college, but he's waiting to pick the school that gives him the best scholarship. Meanwhile, he works part time washing cars, is a member of the National Honor Society and participates in the student government at Patrick Henry. He is also captain of his varsity soccer team and spends time helping other English language learners by explaining words in terms that they can understand. 

"Just because you have mastered something or have learned to do something better than those around you," he wrote in a recent scholarship essay for a class, "you should not just keep that knowledge to yourself, but share as much as you can."

Determined to succeed
Even with little time left in school, some English learners show marked determination to keep ambitions high. 

Jalal Geleta, a senior at Wellstone International, moved to Minnesota from Ethiopia two-and-a-half years ago, joining his mother who came here a decade earlier. Geleta stayed behind to attend school until ninth grade. 

ESL Teacher Terry McDanel, left, gives feedback to
ESL teacher Terry McDanel, left, gives feedback to Jalal Geleta on his paper during a writing class on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, at Wellstone International High School in Minneapolis.
Photo by Anthony Kwan

"When I came to this country, I knew a little bit of English," Geleta says. "It was hard for me to communicate with the teachers and the students because I knew I couldn't speak perfectly." 

His desire to master English extends beyond the classroom. While Geleta's native language is Oromo, he says he also speaks Amharic, a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia. Sometimes, he speaks to his friends in Amharic, but with friends and family, he uses English.

Now he is determined to finish high school, and he has set his sights on going to college to study computer science in California.

Likewise, for Lwin, the student at Humboldt High, success may have started with mere survival that day four years ago when he got lost on the streets of St. Paul, but his ambitions have grown exponentially in a relatively short time. He received one of the highest math scores on the MCA II test in the St. Paul school district this year.

His next stop, he hopes, is the University of Minnesota or St. Thomas University, where he will study actuary science. 

"Perhaps they'll go to college, perhaps they won't," Fearing says of her English learners at Wellstone. "Perhaps they'll get a great job, perhaps they'll just be middle class, but what they had to overcome to get here is twice as huge of obstacles as I've ever had to overcome. [Students] are so resilient, and they are just moving forward."

Mike Zittlow contributed to this report.