When Nurradin Hussein, 18, moved to Louisville last year he only knew the basics.
“I just know Kentucky Derby. The horses,” he says.
Hussein’s family was resettled in Louisville from Malaysia, where they were living as refugees. Before that, his parents lived in Burma but fled because of anti-Muslim violence.
Nurradin says because he and his siblings weren’t Malaysian citizens he couldn’t get many basic services that should be available. No school. No jobs.
“We [didn’t] have citizen card. We don’t have ID.”
In 2013, Nurradin and his family were among the 2,177 refugees resettled in Louisville. While that’s a slight increase from the previous year, the number of refugee minors continues trending upwards at a greater pace, and officials with Kentucky’s refugee services expect that trend to continue this year.
Students like Hussein, who speak English as a Second Language (ESL), are the fastest growing student group in Jefferson County Public Schools. Although much smaller when compared to the total student body, the 4,800 ESL students who receive extra services to help them catch up has nearly doubled in the past decade, says Jayne Kraemer, an ESL staff developer for JCPS.
“We’ve really had explosive growth,” she says.
Kentucky’s limited English population is at just 3 percent, which pales in comparison to border states like California, where nearly a quarter of students are English language learners (ELL). But between 2000 and 2012 Kentucky’s ELL growth increased 306 percent, a rate in the U.S. second only to South Carolina, according to one article.
Now, JCPS is expanding one program that offers more intensive support to students whose primary language at home isn’t English. And the district continues strategically placing ESL programs where the greatest needs are, while trying to attract and keep qualified ESL educators.
When Hussein arrived in the U.S. he spoke multiple languages, (he tells me upwards of seven), but English wasn’t one of them.
“When I go to class, I quiet,” he says. “And I listen. But I don’t understand what [the] teacher is talking about.”
Hussein quickly learned English and he credits the JCPS Newcomer Academy, which serves refugee students and others who need extensive supports.
“We have grown so much the past year,” says Gwen Snow, associate principal of Newcomer Academy.
The growth surprised everyone, she says.
Newcomer ended the 2012-2013 school year with 377 students. When school ended this last spring, it had over 500 students. Snow says the school had to expand space in the middle of the year.
Part of that growth is because more refugee children like Hussein are being resettled in Louisville. But Snow says many kids are coming from Central America as unaccompanied minors. And it’s the public school system’s responsibility to serve these students too.
JCPS officials know where these students live in Jefferson County. That’s why the district has strategically placed its nearly 70 ESL programs in specific areas to accommodate these students, Kraemer says.
This year, Iroquois High School, which is in the south Louisville neighborhood where many Newcomer students live, will serve as host to the district’s first “International Academy,” which will offer a similar program as Newcomer.
“But that site (the International Academy) would be inside of a school where the students, they reside in that area,” says Snow. “They live there and that’s the school where they would end up transitioning out to anyway.”
Newcomer only serves students up to 10th grade. Then students are expected to transition into another high school. At Iroquois, students who attend the academy will be able to transition directly into the school.
Iroquois Principal Chris Perkins says he expects 100 new students to participate in the International Academy.
“It’s kind of exciting. We’re kind of anxious too because there are many of us who haven’t had the opportunity to work with those circumstances before so itâs hard to anticipate all that they’re going need,” says Perkins.
Eight years ago, when Perkins arrived at Iroquois, there were only about 30 international students, he says. With the addition of the International Academy he expects to have around 280 foreign students this year, most of them seeking ESL services, he says.
Even though JCPS is aware of its ESL needs itâs still difficult to find good teachers with ESL credentials, says Kraemer.
Thatâs partly because of state’s rules for who can teach ESL.
In Kentucky, ESL teachers must have both a teaching certificate and an ESL endorsement, which means extra school to meet the requirement. In surrounding states like Ohio, Tennessee and Indiana, teachers can have their primary certification in ESL education, says Dr. Elizabeth Patton, coordinator for the University of Louisvilleâs ESL program.
This is a double-edged sword.
It means teachers must master two content areas (the initial teacher certification and an ESL add-on) but teachers must be convinced itâs worth it. It also means that teachers coming from outside Kentucky may have challenges getting hired here, Patton says.
However, the pass rate for U of L’s ESL program is 98 percent and if teachers do choose to get the ESL add-on, “they have a very, very good chance of getting a job,” she says.
For Hussein and others, Newcomer Academy has helped give them a better chance once they transition to another school (Newcomer also helps integrate and explain the American culture). For some students who enter the public school system behind it can become a race to graduate before aging out at 21.
This school year, Hussein will be attending Fern Creek High School. Heâll continue receiving ESL services, but heâll receive less attention than at Newcomer.
And that’s a challenge he says he’s prepared to meet.