Maria and Ines Mendez, 17-year-old seniors at Harding High School in St. Paul, have lofty goals for students who spoke no English when their family came to Minnesota from Mexico five years ago.
"I want to own my own businesses; I want to be my own boss," Ines said. Her twin sister wants to be a pharmacist. Both are in Advanced Placement classes and are on track to graduate in the spring.
The Mendez sisters are among the growing number of Minnesota students whose first language is not English. Nearly 65,000 English learner students are enrolled in Minnesota schools, representing more than 200 languages.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
That number has grown rapidly in the past two decades, soaring by 50,000, a 300 percent increase in English learners.
"In my opinion, no, we have not kept up with the needs."
Minnesota now ranks 15th nationally in language diversity, or number of languages spoken by students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The only other Midwest states with higher rankings than Minnesota are Michigan and Illinois, which have large and diverse urban populations in Chicago and Detroit.
Minnesota stands alone in its region, with a population of English learners exceeding all of its neighboring states. The reason, experts say, is that Minnesota has long been an attractive environment for immigrants.
"Minnesota has a strong history of nonprofits doing refugee resettlement work, which has brought groups such as the Hmong, Somali and more recently, the Karen to our state," said Andi Egbert, a research analyst at the Minnesota State Demographic Center.
The explosion in English learners has not been limited to the Twin Cities. In the past 10 years, first-ring suburbs such as Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park have had significant increases in immigration, with a more than 10 percent rise in the number of foreign-born citizens living beyond the Twin Cities' urban centers. Outlying cities like Rochester and St. Cloud have also seen a boom in immigrant and refugee populations.
The tremendous growth of language diversity has forced schools throughout the state to develop programs that help non-English-speaking students navigate the system and succeed academically. And with the large numbers of English learners come numerous challenges.
Many students arrive with little or no formal schooling, far behind their peers. Others arrive at a high school age, where catching up academically and mastering the language can make it nearly impossible to pass the standardized tests needed for graduation.
Issues of poverty, undocumented status and family instability arise for many English learners.
"We are consistently looking for ways to stay ahead of the game, to re-evaluate, to change and to do things differently," said Efe Agbamu, the executive director of the English learner program in St. Paul. "Because the groups change from season to season."
Since the Vietnam War, Minnesota has had a consistent influx of different immigrant groups. English as a second language programs began in the schools in the mid-1970s, and have grown ever since, with new immigrant and refugee populations like Hmong and North African groups entering the state.
Statewide, St. Paul has more English learners than any other school district. More than 13,000 "limited English proficient" (or LEP) students were enrolled in St. Paul public schools this school year, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. They represent more than 131 languages.
Minneapolis is second, with almost 8,000 LEP students. Limited English proficient students are those who are identified by school districts as needing English learner services. While some families choose not to enroll their children in English learner programs, the vast majority do.
Like all districts, St. Paul's main goal for its English learner program is to move students through it as quickly as possible so they can become proficient in English and graduate from high school.
Agbamu said one of the district's goals is to get English learners into classrooms with students who are proficient in English, where a mainstream teacher and an English learner teacher collaborate in instruction.
"At some point in time, they need to be embedded in mainstream curriculum and be able to interact with native speakers of the language," Agbamu said.
School districts are in charge of how their English learner programs are funded, and most of the money comes from a district's general fund. Schools are eligible for up to $700 per LEP student from the state for up to five years, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
In addition, school districts are eligible for federal money for English learner services as part of the No Child Left Behind law. In the 2012-13 school year, St. Paul allocated more than $20 million to its English learner programming out of its almost $250 million general fund.
Still, some experts think funding for English learners is not where it should be to match the tremendous growth in Minnesota.
"In my opinion, no, we have not kept up with the needs," said Elia Dimayuga-Bruggeman, an assistant commissioner at the state Department of Education. Right now, in many districts, English learner students are divided into classes based solely on their English proficiency, not their grade level. Dimayuga-Bruggeman said more money is needed to hire enough English learner teachers to divide students into smaller classes organized by age as well as English skills.
The path through the system
The path to the English learner system begins when new families enroll their children in Minnesota schools. The registration form includes a home language survey, which asks about the languages students first learned, speak at home and use with their friends.
"We are consistently looking for ways to stay ahead of the game."
If any of those is a language other than English, students take a test to determine if they need English learner services. Based on the results, students are placed in one of five levels of English learner programming.
The most common foreign languages spoken today in Minnesota schools are Spanish, Hmong, Somali, Vietnamese and Karen. Others include Arabic, Oromo, Taiwanese, Swahili, German and French.
The Mendez sisters entered St. Paul's Battle Creek Middle School in the lower levels, speaking no English when they first arrived in 2007.
"At first it was kind of hard, because you don't know anything; you don't know how to communicate with others," Maria said.
Scott Hall, an English learner teacher who taught Maria and Ines when they moved on to Harding High School, described the twins as having no more than "basic survival skills" for English. The transformation, he said, has been astounding.
"Now they're seniors, and they're in all Advanced Placement classes, they're part of the Knight Crew, they're in Big Sisters," Hall said.
Hall has more than a dozen languages, from Karen to Hmong to Nepali, represented in his second period class at Harding. His students learn about regular academic topics while acquiring English. Hall used to teach in New York, where most of his students were Spanish-speaking, and he is fluent in Spanish.
He said the biggest difference in St. Paul is the diversity of languages spoken, which has forced him to approach his teaching differently.
"As an ESL teacher, you have to be a lot more creative when you don't speak the language of your students," he said.
To do this, Hall uses images from the Internet, acts out phrases and plays videos in class to help him overcome the language gap.
Hall's new English learners have to work hard to catch up to their peers in academic content, and they also have to learn fundamental skills such as what to wear during a Minnesota winter and how to shop at a grocery store.
For his students, and many new English learners who arrive in Minnesota when they are high school age, the challenges are numerous, particularly because they must master not only the language but the academic subjects themselves, and often have too little time to do so.
"They're really chasing a moving target," Hall said.
St. Paul offers a wide array of resources for English learner students. The district focuses on hiring staff, including teachers and teaching assistants, from the cultures and languages that most represent their students. St. Paul also has a number of dual language programs, where students can work on strengthening their home languages while mastering English. Parent education, community partnerships and after-school programs are other resources available to students.
"Sometimes we see students who come here for a while, and then their parents move to Roseville, so they go to Roseville, and all of a sudden, two weeks later, they're back. Or they go to Stillwater, a couple weeks later, they're back because there isn't the same kind of support and backup classes for them there," Hall said.
Suburbs see immigrant growth
The suburbs offer a different challenge. While Minneapolis and St. Paul have developed their English learner programs for decades, areas outside the metro have only recently experienced large growth in immigrants.
"We're a district with a strong reputation and perform quite well academically," said Rick Spicuzza, deputy superintendent of Mounds View Public Schools, which includes the suburbs of Arden Hills, New Brighton, Shoreview and Vadnais Heights. "Still, English learners lag behind."
In 2006, 270 LEP students were enrolled in Mounds View schools. Today, that number is at almost 500, a nearly 100 percent increase in six years. Because of the boom in English learners, Mounds View's programs went under a transformation four years ago.
Since then, the district has began to use some of the same strategies as urban schools do, like co-teaching; partnerships with community organizations; and an increased emphasis on hiring diverse staffs.
"We're definitely heading in the right direction," Spicuzza said of the changes, but the district is still adjusting to the kinds of changes Minneapolis and St. Paul were forced to make decades ago.
Time affects proficiency
Jana Hilleren is the director of the Multilingual Department for Minneapolis Public Schools, which oversees the district's English learner program. She says it takes seven to 10 years for students to become proficient in academic English. Students who first come to the high school will not likely reach grade-level academic English in four years.
English learners are expected to demonstrate the same proficiency on state standardized tests as students who are native speakers of English. Students who come here from refugee camps, like most Hmong, Somali and Karen students (who come mostly from Burma), often arrive with little or no formal education.
These challenges contribute to a sizable achievement gap for English learner students. For example, fewer than 30 percent of English learners passed the standardized reading test required of all Minnesota students for graduation, compared with 70 percent of the general student population. The scores for math show an even larger gap.
"We're a district with a strong reputation ... Still, English learners lag behind."
Graduation rates are also lower than the general population, and Minnesota is in the middle of the pack when it comes to graduation rates for English learners.
But teachers of English learners say measures such as standardized test scores and graduation rates are a poor way of evaluating the success of their students, who come to schools at all ages and at varying proficiency levels. Karla Stone, a program coordinator at the Educator Development and Research Center at the University of Minnesota, says that if an English learner enrolls in a school the day before the standardized math test is given, they have to take it no matter what.
Stone and her colleague, Martha Bigelow, said English learner programs in school districts should be evaluated based on the resources they have for their students - like bilingual classes and cultural support, which have been proven through research to increase English acquisition - rather than test scores.
They say that districts are slowly moving toward incorporating the home languages of students into their English instruction, which has been shown to improve performance.
"There is a very strong correlation between native language literacy and the ability to add English if that foundation is already there," Bigelow said.
A diverse staff is also crucial for a district with a large English learner population to help students communicate despite language and cultural barriers. Having professionals in schools that understand the culture of their students means that they can act as a liaison between parents, students, and other staff.
"It can make the difference for our kids and their families," Bigelow said.
Alexandra Sobiech, Frank Bi and Alexander Holston contributed to this story.