CMS immigrant enrollment is large and growing. That brings costs and benefits.

For the first time ever, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has more than 20,000 immigrant students who need help learning English.

The 21,145 English learners in CMS are by far the largest concentration in North Carolina. Wake County, the state’s biggest district, has only 14,540, and most of the state’s districts don’t even have 20,000 students.

The growing numbers come with costs: CMS is spending more than $30 million this year on the department that serves those students, compared with just over $20 million five years ago. In June Mecklenburg County commissioners approved $1.4 million to add 20 teachers who specialize in English as a second language, bringing the total to more than 300 for 175 schools.

Proponents say there are benefits, too.

A district that successfully educates new arrivals can help attract global companies and workers. Last year the English learners in CMS logged growth on state reading, math and science exams that exceeded state expectations.

And CMS is expanding language immersion schools that offer native English-speakers a chance to learn other languages.

“It’s a strength to be multi-lingual and multi-cultural,” said Elyse Dashew, vice chair of the CMS board.

Dashew, whose children attended a language-immersion magnet school, noted that affluent families often spend thousands of dollars to expose their children to global languages and cultures. CMS reports having students from 187 countries, speaking 205 languages.

Camille Bourguignon, an English as a second language teacher at Reedy Creek Elementary, works with Mary Khintintling, a second grader, with a lesson on Monday, January 14, 2019. For the first time ever, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has more than 20,000 immigrant students who need help learning English. David T. Foster III

Camille Bourguignon, an English as a second language teacher at Reedy Creek Elementary, said her work with immigrant students spills into all classrooms and sparks American-born students’ interest in other languages and cultures.

“It adds so much to any school,” Bourguignon said. “Every child in every school can learn from someone else.”

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A global student body

The student population with ties to other countries is even larger. CMS has 44,237 students — 30 percent of total enrollment — who speak a language other than English at home. The most common home languages are Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, French and Telugu, according to a district report. (Telugu is is a Dravidian language spoken in southern India.)

Many of the children whose parents use another language were born in the United States and speak fluent English.

With the immigration controversies roiling the nation, it’s worth noting that the Supreme Court has ruled that public schools can’t discriminate on the basis of immigration status. The federal government says that means schools can’t ask whether students are citizens, legal immigrants or undocumented, according to a fact sheet sent out by the U.S. departments of justice and education.

North Carolina uses a proficiency test to decide which students from homes where English isn’t the first language should be classified as English learners.

Three years ago the state changed the scores required to test into or out of that category, which increased the total statewide, said Charlotte “Nadja” Trez, who’s in charge of English learner services for CMS. But there was no change between last year, when CMS had 19,794 English learners, and this year.

English learners make up almost 8 percent of all North Carolina public school students and more than 14 percent of students in CMS, the state’s second-largest district, according to state reports. They account for just over 9 percent of students in Wake, the largest district, and Guilford, in third place.

Durham Public Schools is less than half the size of Guilford, but its 5,000 English learners account for 15 percent of total enrollment.

Language options

English as a second language teachers are prepared to teach students from a wide range of language backgrounds, even though the teacher may not be able to speak their students’ native language.

On a recent morning, Bourguignon brought five second-graders to her mobile classroom lined with multicultural books and greetings in many languages. The children — from Vietnam, China, Somalia, Mexico and El Salvador — reviewed a picture-heavy piece about emperor penguins in Antarctica. Bourguignon, speaking only in English, made sure they were picking up vocabulary words such as “hatch,” “waddle” and “huddle” — she had the kids gather around her to act out that one — as well as understanding terms that are used in their other classes.

“When your teacher asks you what the main idea is, what do you think that means?” she asked, then got the children to repeat in unison “the main idea is what the text is mostly about.”

A Reedy Creek Elementary second grader works on an English lesson on Monday, January 14, 2019. For the first time ever, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has more than 20,000 immigrant students who need help learning English. David T. Foster III

The east Charlotte elementary school has enough English learners to qualify for two English as a second language teachers, who work with small groups based on grade level and English proficiency. Class projects designed to help them listen, speak, read and write English tie in with what they’re learning in class — and can be shared with classmates and parents.

For instance, Bourguignon’s students read stories about children from other countries, wrote their own pieces and used iPads to create mini-movies that can be shared from Bourguignon’s YouTube channel.

To communicate with families, who come from about 20 nations, Reedy Creek faculty tap the CMS central offices for help making sure key messages are translated.

CMS also offers language immersion magnets where students can learn in Spanish, French, Chinese, German or Japanese.

Charlotte East Language Academy, the district’s third Spanish immersion school, opened in August in east Charlotte, where much of the city’s immigrant population is concentrated. The first two were filled only by students who applied, including significant numbers from Spanish-speaking homes. The new school includes a small neighborhood zone, in addition to those who apply for the magnet.

More options are coming, with an expanded Collinswood Language Academy (Spanish and English) slated to open in 2020. The following year CMS plans to replace the current Waddell Language Academy, a K-8 school that offers the other languages, with two such schools, one in south Charlotte and one in Huntersville.

Across the state, English learners are more likely to attend traditional public schools, where they make up about 8 percent of enrollment, than charter schools, where they’re about 3 percent.

In August Charlotte got its first language-immersion charter school. East Voyager Academy, founded by Chinese Americans in Charlotte, teaches students in Chinese and English. The west Charlotte school has attracted immigrant families from Latin America, Africa and Asia, some of whom are learning Chinese and English as second and third languages, as well as English-speaking American families who want their children to learn Chinese, Principal Tim Murph told the Observer.

In 2020, a charter school catering to immigrant and refugee students is slated to open in east Charlotte. Movement School East, which will be patterned on Sugar Creek and Movement charter schools, will have faculty trained to teach English learners and use culturally relevant strategies, according to the school’s application.


A previous version of this story gave an incorrect description of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' plan to expand language magnet schools. CMS plans to replace Waddell Language Academy with two K-8 language immersion schools, in northern and southern Mecklenburg County, both opening in August 2021.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.