Of the 1,031 students finishing the school year at East [High School in Kansas City], 582 are immigrant students learning English.
They speak 35 languages and come from dozens of countries. A map in the school’s main hall charts their global journeys in streams of colored ribbons converging on Kansas City.
“Some of our students had never been in school,” East Principal Tommy Herrera said. “Some couldn’t read or write in their own language. . . We have students who (when they first arrive) would rather sit and squat instead of sit on a chair at a desk.”
The first lesson may be as simple as saying “pencil” and shaping a student’s fingers around it, said language teacher Fatimah Daud.
“I’m amazed at how far they can advance in a few short years,” Daud said. “I don’t think people really understand the population we serve.”
Kansas City has concentrated its language programs within the general high school at East—aiming to give immigrant students more special services with opportunities to blend in with mainstream students.
The immigrant students at East build their language through academic content. Teachers have to ensure that they are learning, and the proof is in their speaking and writing it.
But this is no “English only” approach.
Native languages are savored here. With a small army of language specialists to help interpret, students express themselves in the best way they know how, and use that to build English.