THE BLOG
09/24/2014 03:42 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Shakira and Massachusetts Mayor Agree: Learning English Critical for Immigrants

Mayor Shelia Kennedy has an immigration problem. The unfettered influx of undocumented residents has strained her city's public health and education systems. The fact that Mayor Kennedy represents Lynn, Massachusetts, a small city more than 1,500 miles from the border with Mexico, shows that immigration is a national challenge.

Since Congress has dropped the ball on immigration reform, local leaders are scrambling to cobble together resources to meet the needs of these immigrant families. Mayor Kennedy recently visited Washington DC to discuss Lynn's challenges, many of which affect the city's public schools.

She told PBS Newshour that "in the 2010 to 2011 school year, the Lynn school system had 54 Central American students enrolled. As of the 2013-2014 school year, she said there were 538 in the schools." Many of the recent immigrants are children who have been arriving in Lynn alone to live with relatives after fleeing El Salvador, a country ravaged by vicious and powerful drug cartels.

Hopefully, Mayor Kennedy's appearance in our nation's capital drew some notice from some policymakers there because she has been leading on the key issue that will acclimate immigrants to our country: Learning English.

Wherever you stand on the immigration issue, it is important to recognize that there are millions of kids caught in the middle. How we as a society work to help these students is not just a moral imperative but an economic one. While we have no national language, immigrant students who learn English are exponentially more likely to attend college and, as a result, earn more money over their lifetimes. If these students don't have access to adequate educational resources early on, they will find precious few opportunities in the U.S. economy later in life.

More than that, helping English Language Learners is our own economic best interests. Earlier this year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out that educating "the estimated 4.6 million students learning English" in American schools will address our lack of bilingual residents in the workforce -- one of our biggest competitive disadvantages with Europe and other economic powers.

We need more bilingual residents, whether they are native English speakers or start with Spanish, Chinese, French or Arabic. The European Union boasts a workforce that is 55 percent bilingual, while only 18 percent of US citizens speak more than one language.

Converting non-native English speakers, which Duncan pegs as "the fastest-growing student population in our schools," into bilinguals is a very efficient way to close our language gap.

This new way of looking at ELL students, as untapped assets rather than a drain on resources, may help us reform a system in desperate need of new solutions. Lynn has been pursuing ELL innovation for two years in a partnership between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Middlebury Interactive Languages and other community-based organizations to create a summer academy to help early language learners learn English and acclimate to local culture through real-world circumstances.

The students, with first language backgrounds in Arabic, Nepalese, Spanish and Portuguese, followed a curriculum that brought them outside of the classroom to local cultural and economic settings, including a field trip to Fenway Park. The intensive four-week program also included significant teacher training and partnerships with local colleges to provide students with a perspective on higher education pathways.

The academy was highly successful in both teaching students English but also helping them connect with the local culture, which is always critical to truly learning a language. The success of the program encouraged the state education department to add new ELL academies at two other Massachusetts cities for summer 2014.

If we really want to help more students learn English we need to move beyond the failed ELL model of the past 25 years. We need to help local schools and districts customize their own programs that support of unique needs of their student while also reflecting the local culture. We need to invest in teaching training and make new learning tools, like online and interactive content, available to more school districts.

The importance for immigrants to learn English was recently reinforced by Columbian pop idol Shakira, who said: "Particularly for Hispanic students -- which make up the majority of the English learner population -- limited English proficiency in the early years is associated with low achievement and other poor school outcomes." She added that "being bilingual is a competitive business advantage." While the "Hips Don't Lie" singer may seem like an unexpected education advocate, the polyglot pop princess Shakira is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and English and created her own foundation focused on early education.

When diverse voices like a Mayor from a small Massachusetts city to a global pop star from Columbia are on the same page on the importance of teaching immigrant students English, you know it's time for our leaders in Washington to get something done on ELL and immigration reform.