When students embark upon their academic journey into the realm of formal schooling, kindergarten is typically the first, big step. In this class much is to be learned from social-emotional norms, to early reading and math foundational skills, and everything in between. However, when one surveys today’s classroom composite, it becomes readily apparent that school and what has been considered a normal progression, is headed for some dramatic divergence. According to a report issued May 1, 2018 by New York University’s Counseling@NYU, today’s English Language Learners, commonly referred to as ELLs, comprise 21% of all K-12 public school students. That figure is anticipated to grow to 25% by the year 2025, making them the fastest growing student population in the nation.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that these 4.8 million students speak a variety of languages. The top five languages reportedly spoken by ELL students are Spanish, Haitian, Portuguese, Arabic and Vietnamese. However, there are currently 430 languages actively spoken within the United States. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the need for multi-lingual teachers dramatically outpaces the reserves. While one might expect that ELL student densities only proliferate in city settings where the populations are more likely to support multi-lingual environments, the reality is that only 46% of the ELL students live in city settings. Forty-one percent reside in suburban communities, followed by 8% in smaller towns and 6% in rural settings. Even in these more modest concentrations, these numbers are significant. The need translates into 384,000 students in small town settings paired with an additional 288,000 students in rural schools.
Furthermore, the challenge to support student learning in a traditional, English speaking classroom becomes even more complex when ELL children matriculate into the educational system much older than kindergarten. For many ELL students just entering schools in the United States, their ages place them in upper elementary, middle, or even high school settings. In these advanced placements, not only does the subject matter become more complex, but so does the institutional culture and nuances. While there is no doubt this is a challenge for the students, it is also difficult for the classroom teachers and administrators who often have to adjust to regular fluctuations in the latest classroom demographics.
The goal of education, according to the American Association of Curriculum Development’s “What is the Purpose of Education?,” has evolved based on society’s needs. Originally the purpose of an education was to teach religious doctrine, later to prepare students to live in a democratic society, to streamlining immigrants into mainstream society, and then to preparing workers for the industrialized workplace. Many educators today echo Jonathan Cohen, cofounder and president of the National School Climate Center’s remarks when he said, “I think that my view, and most people’s view, is that the purpose of education is to support children in developing the skills, the knowledge, and the dispositions that will allow them to be responsible, contributing members of their community – their democratically-informed community. Meaning, to be a good friend, to be a good mate, to be able to work, and to contribute to the well-being of the community.”
As even rural communities evolve into more global centric environments with more divergent populations, it is critical that education continue to be reimagined not as an amended version of an antiquated norm but rather as a fluid, working model where educators can adjust their instructions, guidance, and support to best serve this unique educational construct. Success with this new and expanding population, however, will require a reimagined financial matrix and system of support to ensure that today’s students are effectively prepared for the tomorrow that only they can imagine.