The new face(s) of Minnesota

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The new faces have been around awhile including pre-kindergarten student Macy Xiong shown here in a photo taken in December by MPR’s Jennifer Simonson.

Macy is working with literacy tutor Lark Flynn-Lippert. They’re working to draw letters of the alphabet at St. Paul City School.

My new Minnesota Sounds and Voices story this afternoon on All Things Considered, takes us to the charter school where we hear from Lark and from the school principal Bondo Nyembwe who came to this country from Congo when he was 17 years old, about the language challenges that face our newest residents.

The story takes note of something we’ve heard a lot about; the arrival in Minnesota of many new faces from all over the world.

Less well known is the context, and it surprised me.

The number of immigrants coming to Minnesota is getting closer to the historic immigration peak of a century ago. In 2011 there were 388,000 immigrants in the state according to state demographer Susan Brower. They were mostly from Africa, Asia and Spanish-speaking nations. Our peak was about 505,000 immigrants who had arrived by 1900.

The numbers mean there’s a strain on the language programs designed to teach these kids English.

Lagging test scores at St. Paul City School a few years ago prompted officials there to enlist the Minnesota Reading Corps, a Minneapolis-based non-profit which has 1,150 tutors working with 30,000 students around the Minnesota.

Minnesota Department of Education officials report that about 64,000 kindergarten through 12th grade public school students needed help last year with reading and writing English.

State education officials report there was help for about 55,000 of the young people. It’s not clear what happened to the others. Maybe they were lucky and school districts located tutors or other resources to help.

There’s plenty of research to show the sooner kids get help learning to read and write the more likely they are to stay in school.

St. Paul City School is among those working with Minnesota Reading Corps to take the help to pre-schoolers – 4 and 5 year olds. Lark is one of three tutors in a classroom of 17, and test scores there are improving.

That compares to some settings where there’s one teacher for maybe a couple dozen kids.

Minnesota Reading Corps officials report the federal budget debate puts their federal grants at risk, but on the other hand, they’re more confident of the roughly $4 million a year the group receives from the state.

The need continues to grow, or as tutor Lark Flynn-Lippert puts it, there just aren’t enough (tutoring) bodies in classrooms given the size of the need.

To many educators, the outcome is clear. We pay now or we pay later for failing to help kids learn to read and write.

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