Happy Language Access Month 2024 – County school districts respond to increase in English language learning students

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April is Language Access Month, where the salience of language access is highlighted. Eliminating language-related barriers for people who are limited English proficient is critical for them to have meaningful access to essential government services.

The importance of such access is well-highlighted by Georgetown University’s National Center for Cultural Competence:

“Being able to access services such as education, legal services, health and mental health care is very important and, in some cases, can even be a matter of life or death. It is difficult to imagine effective treatment, health education, support or any interaction within the health or mental health system without effective communication.

It is estimated that about 11 million people or 4.2% of the population of the United States experiences some level of difficulty speaking English well to not at all. Other estimates place the number of people with limited ability to speak English at least very well at more than 21 million, or 8.1 percent, of the U.S. population. This is especially important when we think of families in households where no one over the age of 14 speaks English at least very well. Such households are living in linguistic isolation. In the United States there are about 11 million households or 4.7 percent of the population in this category. It can be expected that these numbers will continue to increase, because of the changing demographics of the U.S. population.”

In 2019, the top five spoken languages encountered in Pittsburgh Public Schools other than English were: Spanish; Nepali; Swahili; Arabic; and Chinese Mandarin. In Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, there are several other LEP communities where the following languages are widely spoken: Korean; Ukrainian; Uzbek; Chin; Karen; and Mam (an indigenous language of Guatemala). Allegheny County, Pennsylvania is home to the City of Pittsburgh.

For 2024’s Language Access Month, the experience of the Allegheny County Public Schools is most instructive of the demographic and linguistic changes that are common throughout the United States. A community’s changing language diversity is often first revealed in public schools’ English Language Learner programs, as has happened in Allegheny County.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“For the district of 4,544 students, that growth has led to using translation services to ensure communication with families not fluent in English, increasing necessary supports based on students’ English comprehension and evenly spreading students between the district’s 11 full-time ESL teachers and another who splits time between English language classes and other subject areas.

If you put yourself in the shoes of a student coming from a different country, and one day you just show up in America and you’re in an American school and you sit down and you don’t know how to speak the language and all you hear around you is English, it’s challenging,” Kara Eckert, the district’s deputy superintendent, said.

According to state data, four districts in Allegheny County saw the biggest spikes in English language learners between the 2018-19 and 2022-23 school years, including Baldwin-Whitehall, which grew by 113 ESL students in that time for a total of 428 in 2022-23; Chartiers Valley, which saw 116 more students for a total of 256 last year; Moon Area, which spiked by 119 students for a total of 213; and Pittsburgh Public, which saw a jump of 169 students for a total of 1,197.

[Most of t]he county’s other districts all saw increases as well. Absolutely across the board the numbers are up,” said Kelly Noyes, program director of educational support services at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which assists area school districts in meeting the needs of English learners. ‘Our numbers of students that we’re servicing are the highest that they have been in the 16 years that I’ve been here and I would say confidently in the history of the program.’…

Allegheny County continues to see a historic spike in immigration. By the end of October, there were 2,657 new cases by immigrants who listed Allegheny County addresses in their notices to appear in court. That more than doubled the 1,203 cases filed in 2022.

Refugees moving to the area also increased in recent years, including those who fled from Afghanistan when U.S. troops withdrew from the region in August 2021 and Ukrainians who are applying for humanitarian parole status amid the war with Russia.

Jonathan Covel, Pittsburgh Public’s ESL director, added that local trends are “a microcosm of what we’re seeing in the United States.” The U.S. Department of Education found that the percentage of English learners increased in more than half the states between the 2009-10 and 2014-15 school years, with spikes of more than 40% in five states. By then there were 4.8 million English learners in U.S. schools, or 10% of all students.”

Responding to the English language needs of students from dozens of countries, Pittsburgh area school districts implemented new professional development and training programs for staff and in some districts, newly hired English  Language Learning teachers and language education professionals.

Case in point – Pittsburgh Public Schools

According to the Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s second-largest school district after Philadelphia:

“… educates students who speak 58 different languages. The district of roughly 19,000 students, which allocated $8.5 million in the current budget to English language services, has 53 ESL teachers and 17 multilingual ESL paraprofessionals. But a jump of almost 170 English language students in the past five years caused the district to increase staff and sparked a curriculum review that is currently underway.”

As Pittsburgh and Allegheny County move forward with language access plans to welcome their newly arrived students, Happy Language Access Month, 2024! Both places are addressing themselves to the needs of public-school students, newly minted residents of the United States, as they begin adjusting to life in their new home.

The experience of Nikita Petruk, a 16-year-old Baldwin-Whitehall School District sophomore, who fled Ukraine after Russia’s February 2022 invasion,  reveals the poignancy of learning a new language and culture to enable acclimation to American life. Upon arriving in America, he first lived in Louisiana before coming to Pittsburgh:

“Nikita Petruk… praised the support he’s received since coming to the Pittsburgh region from Louisiana after leaving his home country of Ukraine when the war with Russia started in February 2022. Nikita, whose mother encouraged him to learn English from the time he was 2, is in the most advanced ESL classes to help with reading and writing.

‘I got much more friends than in Louisiana for half a year,’ Nikita said, adding that the classes at Baldwin have helped with his reading and vocabulary. ‘Now I start to communicate with everyone so I started to [understand] American people’s sense of humor.’”

As Baldwin School District teacher Ms. Niemi told the Post-Gazette, “her hope is that English language classes will continue to provide students with a safe place to learn a new culture and language. It’s a life skill,” she said, ‘they’re going to need eventually for their career and job and outside in the community.’”

© Bruce L. Adelson 2023. All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only.  No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

Bruce L. Adelson, Esq., is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise.  Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney.  Mr. Adelson is a faculty member at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh School of Law where he teaches organizational culture, implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness.

Mr. Adelson’s blogs are a Bromberg exclusive.

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