The ESL Newcomer Academy adds new students throughout the year, and their country of origin changes with world events. Ten years ago, the school received a lot of Bosnians, but very few of them are arriving in the city now. Today, students are coming from places like Congo, Burma and Nepal. The list of languages represented at the newcomer academy includes: Farsi, Nepali, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Gujarati, Kachin, Kinyarwanda and Karen. Associate Principal Gwen Snow says she won’t be surprised to see some Syrians in the near future. Because of the work done by Catholic Charities and Kentucky Refugee Ministries to resettle refugees and immigrants in the Bluegrass, Louisville’s foreign-born population is more diverse than almost anywhere else in the nation. Foreign-born residents currently make up 6.5 percent of the city’s population, which makes what the academy does even more important.

“All of our instructors are highly qualified in English as a second language and their content area,” Snow says. “They are teaching algebra or social studies, but they are also teaching English at the same time. They might build concepts into their lesson like past tense or new vocabulary. They are kind of doing two things at one time. Actually, they are doing three things at one time because they are also helping students acclimate to a new culture.”

Snow says the length of a child’s stay at her school ranges from weeks to two years, depending on their history. The academy began the current school year with 180 kids, but she expects there to be at least 450 by the year’s end due to the influx of new arrivals. According to the Metro Office of Globalization, from 2010 to 2012, about 30 percent of new residents to Greater Louisville came from outside the United States. The academy’s students have a wide variety of experiences with formal education. In some cases, the ESL Newcomer Academy is a family’s first experience with a traditional school.

“Some of our students have awesome backgrounds,” Snow says. “They just need time to learn to acclimate and learn the language, but they have all the basics. Some come with a limited educational background. They might speak a language that doesn’t have a written alphabet. Those students usually stay longer.”

The ESL Newcomer Academy has a staff of about 20, with the school’s personnel constantly changing to match the needs of the latest influx of students. Instructors need to have a special ESL certification to teach there, and other staff members, like interpreter Ahmed, must have at least a high school diploma and pass an education test. Snow says many of the students need more than just classroom instruction. New students receive school supplies and they are also referred to the Clothing Assistance Program if there is a perceived need for clothing. Other social service agencies use the school as a way to reach immigrant and refugee families that need other services, such as therapy in dealing with the experiences that made it necessary for them to leave their home countries.

After leaving the academy, most students are transitioned to mainstream schools with ESL programs in accordance with their home address. Students who have reached the age limit allowed for JCPS enrollment – age 21 – are referred to a GED program. Since classes are based on education level and not age, older students can find themselves doing the same work as people who are much younger.