With more than 20 languages spoken in one eighth-grade classroom, Harlem Village Academy West in New York City rivals the vibrant cultural and ethnic mix of the United Nations headquarters, a short trip down the FDR Drive. Spanish, Mandingo, Fulani, French, Arabic, and other languages come together to form a tapestry of nationalities. Yet unlike the U.N., the premier institution representing the peoples of the world, public schools have not always encouraged children to embrace their heritages. Indeed, as non-native English speakers, some of the Harlem Village’s middle-schoolers relate feelings of isolation as younger children solely based on their attainment of the English language.
Chelsea, a 13-year-old Spanish-speaker who learned English in the third grade, recalls her earliest years in school as especially difficult amid her struggles to communicate with peers. “I used to get mad and aggravated because I couldn’t speak English,” she says. “People were looking at me as if I were another type of human being.” Her classmates share similar frustrations. “I felt dumb and left out when we did advanced math because my teacher wouldn’t let me do it even though I knew I could,” says Yaye, a bright 14-year-old who speaks Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal, at home. Yaye says he languished in his K-2 English-as-a-second-language classes, “not progressing or learning.” Melyanet, also 14, remembers feeling alienated and lonely when she was in prekindergarten—an age when children often sharpen their social skills through play. “I would try my best to learn English but it was hard,” the teen recalls. “No one spoke [Spanish] so I wouldn’t make friends. I would sit in the back.”
The adolescents at Harlem Village are part of a rapidly growing population of students in America’s public schools with diverse linguistic backgrounds. Of the 50 million students currently enrolled in public K-12 schools, almost one in four (12 million) schoolchildren ages 5 to 17 speak a language other than English at home, according to an analysis of census figures. Their numbers have inched up over the last decade, along with the percentage of students participating in English-language-learners programs. Department of Education data shows this segment of the public-school population is steadily climbing. Some 4.4 million students—ranging from those who don’t speak English to those transitioning into full proficiency—were classified as English language learners in the 2012-13 school year, an increase of more than 250,000 students over the previous decade.