Ohio schools are seeing growing numbers of English learners
Inside a classroom in Licking Heights, a suburb just east of Columbus, a group of elementary schoolers get comfortable on bean bag chairs and crack open a book.
They’re reading “Esperanza Rising” — a story about a Mexican girl who works on a farm during the Great Depression.
“Esperanza…starts…the beans,” the teacher reads slowly, as she directs her students to sound out the words on a worksheet. “What’s ‘beans’ in español?”
These kids, from countries like Mexico, Venezuela and Haiti, are learning English as their second, third or even fourth language. And they’re not alone.
Lessons like this are becoming increasingly common in Ohio.
Over the past two decades, the number of English learners in the state has doubled to more than 60,000 students. They live all over the state, from Cincinnati to Akron, Youngstown to Toledo.
In fact, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education, 70% of the state’s counties have seen increases in their populations of English learners in the past five years alone.
No signs of slowing down
At the Licking Heights Local School District, this trend is holding strong. Since 2016, the district has gained 650 English learning students.
“When I came here, I was the third full time ESL teacher,” said English language coach Laura Mickelson. She’s been working with the district for 18 years.
“Now, we’re up to 17 teachers,” she said. “We still need more.”
About one in five students at Licking Heights are now English learners. With Intel preparing to open a plant nearby and big housing developments sprouting up, Mickelson doesn’t see the growth slowing down.
That’s because once an English learning family moves in, she says, more seem to follow.
That’s true across the state.
Aleksandar Cuic, who runs the immigration clinic at Case Western's law school, said immigrants tend to cluster around areas where other people speak the same language and share the same culture. And refugee resettlement agencies often place newcomers in communities with family or friends.
“How do you get assimilated? How do you find a job? How do you do all those things?” Cuic asked. “You're really dependent on your community and your culture.”
That’s why places like Cleveland have large populations of Syrians and people from Congo, while Columbus is home to a lot of people from Somalia, and Cincinnati has a growing Mauritanian population.
In Licking Heights, the Nepali population is skyrocketing, and in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland, it’s Ukrainian refugees.
An influx of refugees
Even as total enrollment has shrunk, the number of English learners at Parma City School District, which has long been home to Eastern European immigrants, has jumped from about 90 in 2014 to almost 750 this year.
Stanislav Kysylytsia, a student at Normandy High School, arrived a little more than a year ago. Even with other Ukrainian students around in the community, adjusting to life in the U.S. has been challenging for him.
“It was hard because you don't know [the] language, but in Ukraine I learned some English,” he said. “And when I came here with no friends, you don't know nothing.”
The school district strives to make students like Kyslylytsia feel welcome, but the district is facing its own struggle to to adjust to its growing refugee population.
“It's really exploded,” said Kristine Dobransky, department chair of English language services. “We've always had a large Ukrainian population here. They've kind of congregated in this area. But at the beginning of last school year, we had about 30 to 40 new Ukrainian students.”
In response, she said the district has had to hire more teachers who have certification to teach English learners. But suburban Parma doesn’t have the resources of a large city school district. The district doesn’t have translators on staff.
That’s where Susanna Pasichnyk and Evgenia Batina come in. They’re academic support coordinators with Re:Source Cleveland, a nonprofit serving refugees formerly known as Refugee Response.
Every school day - stationed out of a small room in Normandy High School’s basement - they help students and staff like Kysylytsia and Dobransky with translation and other support. The two coordinators are also relatively new arrivals from Ukraine. Pasichnyk came with her two kids.
“I understand how it's complicated for kids to adjust to all this environment, to adjust to the school system,” Pasichnyk said. “That's why we provide not only tutoring in different subjects, but also we speak with them, we ask them about different challenges that they face every day, and we try to find some solutions together.”
Dobransky said Pasichnyk and Batina, as well as two academic support coordinators at Valley Forge High School at Parma school district, are a big help for the school district, which also has some Afghani students as well. Re:Source Cleveland also has support staff at several other local high schools with large populations of refugees through its “Teen Response” program.
“Language is the biggest barrier, but… Some of our families from Afghanistan or families sometimes from some countries in Africa, the children really haven't been to formal schools,” program manager Kim Wheeler said. “So that's a bigger barrier.”
These challenges aren’t unique to Cleveland, Parma or Licking Heights’ schools. School districts across Ohio are reaching for solutions — like those offered by Re:Source Cleveland — to better serve the growing number of students learning the English language. We'll publish another story tomorrow looking at those efforts at school districts in Akron and Cincinnati.