ESL Students — and Immigrant Families — Excel in Kentucky

Roughly 14 percent of students in Kentucky’s Bowling Green Independent School District are immigrants or refugees, a statistic associate superintendent Vicki Writsel is particularly proud of. “It serves our students well that our school district is so diverse,” she says. “When they graduate, they are prepared to work with people from all parts of the country and the world.”

They recognize the importance of education to economic development and family fiscal stability.

Writsel says much of the high school’s excellence — a high percentage of students take AP classes and several National Merit Scholars emerge every year — is due to its ESL (English as a Second Language) population. She points to research that suggests that people who are bilingual are more efficient learners. “It’s definitely something that our students see as an asset as they go into the world of work,” she says. These immigrant families also play an important role within the school system. “They recognize the importance of education to economic development and family fiscal stability,” she says. It’s part of the reason why the school partners with local vocational and technical colleges to offer adult education and ESL classes.

One year, Writsel recalls, a mom and her two adult sons all earned their GEDs in the same year; the mom went on to become a nurse, and one of the sons was accepted to medical school. “That took a lot of self-discipline to set a long-term goal like that, to have to work and go to school,” says Writsel. “But that’s what we see with our refugee and immigrant families when they come here. They have a great deal of hope and belief in our system as a way to make a better life.”

That enterprising spirit also benefits the local economy. “We see lots of entrepreneurship among our immigrant and refugee community,” says Writsel. (She’s right: There are more than 750 immigrant entrepreneurs in her congressional district, in central Kentucky.) “Restaurants, automotive businesses, their national groceries, even real estate — people capitalize on their multicultural knowledge and linguistic skills in a lot of ways to support entrepreneurship.” In fact, the revenue generated from those business, combined with that of the immigrants who work in agriculture, accommodation, food services, and manufacturing, equates to nearly $380 million in spending power for the district’s foreign-born population. And yet, says Writsel, these families still live with uncertainty, given the current political climate. “I don’t think equality is a luxury or a nuisance,” she says. “It’s just what we do to make things better.”

Writsel doesn’t buy into the idea that immigrants are taking jobs from hardworking Americans. “They are taking jobs that need to be done and that no one else is willing to do,” she says. Nor do immigrants pose a threat to national security. “I think the vetting process is much stronger than most people realize,” she explains. “I know some some families have been in the process for years before they get here.” The bottom line, says Writsel, is that these people want to work and contribute to our country — why not do what we can to support those ambitions?

“Our immigrants and refugee families are strivers,” she says. “They’re willing to put their back into whatever work they’re doing to make a better life for themselves and their kids. They’re a reminder of the American Dream, and it’s good to know that the United States still symbolizes those ideals of hope and equality to the rest of the world.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…