ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Since 1995, the number of students in U.S. schools who are not native English speakers has shot up 60 percent. In 20 states, the number of students has doubled in that time. These English language learners, or in education jargon ELL's, dropout in huge numbers, and the ones, who stay don't always catch up. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has the story of a Boston teacher who is determined to reverse that trend.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: There are over 24,000 students in the Boston public schools who are not native English speakers. And according to one major study, many are not doing well academically, especially Spanish speakers.
Mr. FRANCISCO RUIZ (ELL Program, The English High School, Boston): We knew that. If we don't take care of the Latino population in Boston, Boston's educational system as a whole will not improve - will not.
SANCHEZ: Francisco Ruiz runs the English Language Learners program at English High School in Jamaica Plain. It's one of the most successful in the city even though its dropout rate is nearly 50 percent. A short, intense, wiry man, Ruiz says many ELL students dropout because they don't feel like they fit in. They hate having an accent and don't want to be made fun of. But in his efforts to encourage them, there's something else that Ruiz says he's constantly battling.
Mr. RUIZ: Pop culture defines America.
SANCHEZ: Ruiz calls it a culture of excess, with its slang, its rap music, baggy jeans, really, really short skirts, the obsessions with sports heroes -he hates it.
Mr. RUIZ: And that's my stubbornness. I stayed away from American football and I stayed away from baseball purposely.
SANCHEZ: I do a double take. You're in Boston and you hate baseball, I asked, the great American pass time, which, by the way, is now dominated by Latinos like the Dominican kids in your ELL program.
Mr. RUIZ: Yes, that's an incredible irony. You should interview the coach here. But, he needs an interpreter. The captain is the one who knows English and he's the interpreter. I should have found…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RUIZ: (unintelligible). So, the coach now has learned Spanish in order to able to communicate.
SANCHEZ: It should be the other way around says Ruiz. The players should be learning English from their coach. Still, some of Ruiz's students have had great success here. And he wants me to meet a couple of them. Genisis Mejia(ph),17, and Michael Nicamor del Valle(ph), 15. Ruiz says, Genisis and Michael have worked really hard to learn proper English, correct grammar and build a good vocabulary - not slang, not street English, says Ruiz. Michael says that's why he was well-prepared for the transition to English-only classes.
Mr. MICHAEL NICAMOR DEL VALLE: There are some teachers who are good here, like my ELL, English language arts. He is really good. He teaches you. My algebra teacher is also good. Everyday they ask me for my homework. When I'm done doing my homework they always make me read and stuff.
SANCHEZ: As for Genisis, she says she's ready for college in the fall, thanks to teacher like Ruiz.
Ms. GENISIS MEJIA: Like you have teachers that support you, if they see that you're determined to do what you had to do, they'll help you a lot, and talk to you about college. I want to study criminal justice, because I want to be, like, a detective.
SANCHEZ: Genisis and Michael have lost their accent and their shyness. Ruiz looks on with obvious pride. He says he sees himself in his students - not just Latinos but the Somali, Ethiopian and West African kids who make up the rest of the ELL population at English High School. It's that closeness that makes Ruiz a good teacher, a mentor, and, in some ways, a role model. Like his students, Ruiz too is an immigrant. He arrived as a 23-year-old law student, fleeing death squads and El Salvador's bloody civil war.
Mr. RUIZ: The plane left me right from Los Angeles to Boston. And I walked from the airport. I had $5, and did not know how to say, I'm looking for a job, in English.
SANCHEZ: Ruiz says it took him three years to learn English. It was his ticket to college. That's the goal, says Ruiz. That's what he drills into his students. It's what drives Ruiz as a teacher, to see his students accomplish what, to them and to their families, may have seemed impossible.
Mr. RUIZ: Yes, Yes, I mean, you have all the opportunities right here. You don't have any excuses. And I tell them, you are privileged. Just remember, you are privileged.
(Soundbite of salsa music)
SANCHEZ: It's mid-afternoon. Salsa music seeps out from a classroom right before the last bell. A torrent of students spills into the streets. Ruiz walks me out. He reminds me that English High School was founded in 1821, making it the oldest public high school in America. It opened with lots of non-English speaking immigrants, who struggled but prospered. And says Ruiz, there's no reason that the newest generation of immigrants won't do the same.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.