In a quiet classroom in Licking Heights, just east of Columbus, a diverse group of elementary school students settles into bean bag chairs, immersing themselves in the pages of “Esperanza Rising” — a poignant tale of a Mexican girl navigating life on a farm during the Great Depression.
These children, hailing from countries such as Mexico, Venezuela, and Haiti, are engaged in the vital process of learning English as their second, third, or even fourth language. Their experience reflects a broader trend in Ohio, where the number of English learners has doubled to over 60,000 students in the past two decades, creating a rich tapestry of linguistic and cultural diversity in schools across the state.
The surge in English learner populations is not limited to a particular region but is evident statewide, with 70% of Ohio’s counties experiencing an uptick in English learners in the past five years alone. This demographic shift is reshaping the landscape of education, demanding innovative approaches to ensure the success and inclusion of students from diverse linguistic backgrounds.
In the Licking Heights Local School District, this trend is notably pronounced. Since 2016, the district has witnessed a significant influx of 650 English learning students, reinforcing the need for dedicated resources and educators to support this growing population. The district, with its current 17 English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, exemplifies the increasing demand for English language instruction.
Laura Mickelson, an English language coach with 18 years of experience in the district, notes the persistent growth and acknowledges the necessity for more ESL teachers. Approximately one in five students at Licking Heights are English learners, a demographic that is expected to expand further with the imminent opening of an Intel plant nearby and ongoing housing developments.
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The clustering of immigrants and refugees in areas with established communities of the same language and culture is a common phenomenon. Aleksandar Cuic, who oversees the immigration clinic at Case Western’s law school, highlights the crucial role of community and cultural support in helping newcomers assimilate, find jobs, and navigate the complexities of life in a new country.
This pattern is reflected in cities like Cleveland, where large populations of Syrians and people from Congo have settled, Columbus, home to a significant Somali community, and Cincinnati, witnessing a growing population of Mauritanians. In Licking Heights, the Nepali population is on the rise, while Parma, a suburb of Cleveland, has seen an influx of Ukrainian refugees.
Parma City School District, which has long been a home for Eastern European immigrants, has experienced a substantial increase in English learners despite an overall decline in enrollment. The number has surged from around 90 in 2014 to almost 750 this year. The district’s commitment to supporting these students is evident in its efforts to hire more teachers certified to teach English learners. However, the district faces challenges, lacking the extensive resources of larger city school districts.
As English learner populations continue to grow, schools are adapting to meet the diverse needs of these students. In Parma, the Ukrainian community is supported by academic coordinators from Re:Source Cleveland, a nonprofit serving refugees. Susanna Pasichnyk and Evgenia Batina, academic support coordinators stationed at Normandy High School, provide invaluable translation and support services to both students and staff.
Pasichnyk, who arrived with her children from Ukraine, emphasizes the importance of understanding the challenges faced by students adjusting to a new environment and school system. Re:Source Cleveland’s “Teen Response” program extends support to several other local high schools with significant refugee populations, addressing language barriers and providing holistic assistance.
The challenges faced by English learners in Ohio are mirrored in schools across the state, prompting educators and support organizations to explore innovative solutions. The need for targeted resources, qualified teachers, and community support remains paramount to ensure the successful integration of English learners into the educational fabric of Ohio.
In conclusion, Ohio’s educational landscape is undergoing a transformation fueled by the increasing numbers of English learners. Schools, educators, and support organizations are rising to the occasion, recognizing the importance of tailored approaches to address the linguistic and cultural diversity within their classrooms. As the state continues to welcome new residents from various corners of the globe, the commitment to inclusive education and support for English learners becomes an integral part of Ohio’s educational journey.