English language programs trace roots to mid-1970s

Roosevelt High School yearbook pages
Pages from the 1983 Minneapolis Roosevelt High School describing the school's English as a second language (ESL) program.
Roosevelt High School

Though immigration has been a prominent feature of U.S. growth since the nation's founding, the modern age of English language learning programs traces back to only the mid-1970s.

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At that time, small clusters of foreign language students were scattered throughout Minnesota schools, but no infrastructure beyond simple tutoring existed to handle them.

Two events would change this: the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Lau v. Nichols and the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Lau v. Nichols was a landmark case for foreign language-speaking students in the United States. The court found San Francisco schools had discriminated against 1,800 Chinese-American students by not addressing their lack of English proficiency when providing instruction. The ruling effectively mandated English as a second language (ESL) instruction in the United States. (ESL programs are now often referred to as ELL for "English language learner," or sometimes just EL.)

Deirdre Kramer, who coordinated the first ESL programs in Minneapolis, remembers reading about the ruling in Time magazine. "I saw the Supreme Court decision and knew, oh my God, this is huge," Kramer said.

"I saw the Supreme Court decision and knew, oh my God, this is huge."

Then, in 1975, in the wake of the Vietnam War, immigrants and refugees from Southeast Asia began to arrive in Minnesota, drawn by a strong network of churches and non-profits with resources to help them resettle.

Wanda McCaa had been tutoring foreign language students when the first wave of immigration hit. Southwest High School in Minneapolis hired her to help teach the burgeoning population of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Hmong students.

The 1975 school year began with around 60 students, McCaa said, but swelled to 300 by its end. The schools didn't know what to do. "It was like nobody had ever arrived in Minnesota who didn't speak English before, " she said.

To deal with the increasing number of students, schools began busing them to one of the district's unused properties -- Wilder Elementary -- to receive English instruction for half-days apart from their English-proficient peers.

But the logistical problems with moving students back and forth forced the district to find a new way to deal with teaching the students. "As they kept coming," McCaa said, "[the district] realized that the next year that was not going to work."

In 1976, the district hired Kramer, who had worked with the ESL students at Wilder, to establish a centralized teaching model to serve all the ESL students at Southwest and Audubon Elementary. The approach, which used bilingual teachers, kept students integrated in the same classrooms.

But as the 1980s began, a second wave of immigration challenged Southwest's ability to serve all the students. "It forced us to say, 'This is too many kids who don't speak English in one school,'" McCaa said.

"It was like nobody had ever arrived in Minnesota who didn't speak English before."

McCaa and Janet Benson, another teacher from Minnesota's early ESL days, said another factor that prompted Minneapolis to expand into other schools were cultural conflicts that students brought along to Minnesota. Benson saw clashes between Hmong students and Vietnamese students who were ethnically Chinese.

"The friction was so bad even the Hmong teachers were afraid to be there," Benson said. The solution was to separate students based on nationality across Minneapolis schools.

The Vietnamese students stayed at Southwest; the Hmong and Cambodian students went to Edison; and the Lao students went to Roosevelt -- McCaa with the latter.

"To try and deal with all of those cultures in each school would have been really difficult," McCaa said.

This initial wave of non-English speaking students would not be the last. Over the next two decades, the number of ESL students grew from hundreds to tens of thousands. Through the 1980s, large numbers of Hmong, Mexican and Latin American students emigrated to Minnesota, while the 1990s were marked by the arrival of Somali refugees.

"The numbers now are small -- they seem small," Kramer said of the earliest days of ESL, "but at the time they were huge."

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