Long Island has seen almost a 60% increase in the number of students who require English as a new language classes. NewsdayTV’s Macy Egeland reports. Credit: Newsday/Kendall Rodriguez; Elizabeth Sagarin

The number of English language learners in Long Island schools has surged over the past decade — almost 60% — creating challenges such as a shortage of specialized teachers and addressing the students' problems with attendance and dropping out, educators say.

English learners increased from 27,477 in the 2012-13 school year to 43,675 in 2022-23, a jump of 16,198, according to figures from the state Department of Education. During that same period, they increased from 6% of the Island's student population to about 11% of the total Island enrollment of 421,990 students, state figures show.

Many districts have seen their numbers more than double in a decade, including Bay Shore, Bethpage, Bridgehampton, Center Moriches, Elmont, Garden City, Lawrence, Merrick, North Bellmore, North Shore and Seaford, according to a Newsday analysis of state figures.

The students are integrated into the student population upon their arrival, picking up the language through a mix of targeted English instruction, bilingual classes and mainstream instruction, educators said.

In addition, educators said, more than ever, they are embracing students' home language and culture, using them as springboards to help them learn English, rather than, as in years past, simply trying to replace them.

"There are very significant changes going on in our schools right now," said Selene Yoel, Stony Brook University's director of bilingual programs and teaching English as a second language.

The Island is suffering from a shortage of teachers for English learners, she said.

"I would say most districts [on Long Island] need more teachers who are certified in English as a New Language," Yoel said. 

The growth in the number of English learners echoes the population changes on Long Island, if not the nation, said Martin R. Cantor, executive director of the Long Island Center for Socioeconomic Policy.

"You can see it in the demographics — white down, Black constant and Latino up," Cantor said. "The answer is America — there have always been waves of immigrants."

The stakes are high when it comes to educating young people who speak little to no English, he said.

"You don't want them becoming a burden on society," Cantor said. "They have to contribute to the economy rather than rain on it."

The increase in English learners comes as the overall student enrollment on Long Island has declined 7% in a decade, as schools grapple with families having fewer children, an aging population and people leaving who can't afford to live here, according to state figures.

State law requires schools to educate them regardless of their immigration status. The state Department of Education classifies English learners as students who, because of their foreign birth or ancestry, speak a language other than English and understand little or no English.

Amid Long Island's patchwork of 124 school districts, some 22 districts have student populations in which at least 1 in every 5 students is an English learner, according to state education figures. Those districts include Hempstead, where 43% of students are English learners; Roosevelt (26%), Westbury (30%), Brentwood (36%), Hampton Bays (32%) and Riverhead (37%).

The swelling number of English learners comes as the topic of immigration stands as a front-burner issue in American politics.

"English language learners, normally without money or wealth, will normally settle with relatives and friends in existing homes in existing communities on Long Island," Cantor said. "That's why Long Island's zoning, housing policies and neighborhood opposition has little impact on where migrants settle. In fact, over the past 10 years, existing households have become more dense with more people living in existing living space."

Yulissa Genao, 16, recalled coming to the Comsewogue district five years ago. The district has seen its population of English learners increase by 40% in a decade, to 244 students, state figures showed. English learners represent 7% of overall enrollment.

Genao said she originally came from the Dominican Republic to a school in Rhode Island, landing in fifth grade in the middle of the school year, knowing little English and having no teacher who spoke Spanish.

"When I first came here, everything was difficult," said Genao. "In the Dominican Republic, I was a really good student, but now I was nobody."

Months passed before she understood the language of this new world, and even then she was afraid to speak up, worried she would make embarrassing mistakes. She wanted to play sports but felt too overwhelmed to try, she said.

"Classmates would make fun of me for my accent. Every time a teacher would teach me a word, I'd say it and other students would laugh and mock me," she said of her experience in Rhode Island.

Rosa Antelo, who teaches English learners at Comsewogue High School, is an example of a local English learner who grew into a local teacher. Antelo came to the district in 1994 from the Dominican Republic and was placed in 11th grade. She graduated from high school and later Stony Brook University, then began teaching Comsewogue's English learners in 1999, she said.

"When I started as a student, there were seven [English learner] students in the high school, and they had two teachers for the entire district," Antelo said. The school now has about 86 English learners and five teachers, officials said. "For me, my ESL teacher was everything. My mom passed away [about a year after Antelo arrived here]. She became my second mother."

Antelo met Genao shortly after the teen came to Comsewogue High School in 2022 and has served as a mentor to her over the years. She translated for Genao so she could join the school softball team. Genao is finishing her sophomore year.

Antelo's message to the students: "Don't give up. You've made too many sacrifices."

Christa Stevenson, a program director for Eastern Suffolk BOCES who works with districts across the Island on English learner programs, said many schools are actively recruiting these teachers. State and federal grants offer tuition assistance, and some districts have begun to grow their own teachers in this field, getting students interested in the field while still in high school, she said.

Yoel, who trains teachers to work with English learners, said many mainstream teachers receive limited college education on instructing them. Misconceptions about the students can sometimes lead to them being labeled as having a learning disability and placed in special education, Yoel said.

"I worry that there are over-referrals into special ed," she said. 

As soon as the warm weather arrives, many English learners at Riverhead High School disappear from class, said Emily Sanz, director of programs and community outreach for them.

"Once spring comes, it gets pretty empty" in 11th- and 12th-grade classes for them, she said.

"They're taking landscaping and other jobs to help their families," she said.

Some are unable to catch up with their studies and drop out, Sanz said.

This school year, Riverhead began an evening academy to help those students keep their noses in the books, she said. Next school year, the district will begin programs for those immigrants who had received little education in their native countries, she said.

Riverhead is among the districts most impacted by the increase in English learners, attracted to the area for jobs in the wineries and other agricultural work, she said. The district has seen their numbers increase 192% in a decade, adding 1,321 students for a current total of 2,009, state figures showed. 

These students, who made up 14% of Riverhead's student population in 2012-13, now make up 37%, according to the figures. 

The bulk of K-12 funding for English learners comes from state and local revenue, much of that from local property taxes. The full costs of educating these students is complicated and hard to pin down, as it is divided among several budget items, educators said.

Federal funding comes in the form of Title III money. Port Washington received $105,151 for this school year in that federal funding, school officials said.

The district's budget line for English learners indicates the district will spend $4 million on them next school year, an increase of 3.7%, or $141,902. Officials noted these expenses are blended into other budget lines.

Many districts have responded to the growing numbers of English learners by creating or expanding programs, offering more mentor opportunities and creating relationships with community groups that help them.

The Copiague district operates a Saturday academy for those learning English. Mattituck-Cutchogue has an after-school initiative. Port Washington runs a twilight program so working students can take courses in the evening "so at least they can sleep in," Superintendent Michael Hynes said.

When an English learner disappears from school, it can be difficult to track them down, said Estrella Olivares-Orellana, Uniondale's director of multilingual learners. Many families are transient, moving due to new job opportunities. Parents often don't notify the district of the change, she said.

Uniondale is another district that has greatly changed, as the number of English learners has grown by 51% in a decade, to 1,376. They account for nearly a quarter of the student body, according to state figures.

Olivares-Orellana said she does not see the growth associated with the influx of refugees to New York City, but rather from established families here. Some of them are born here. The district has seen more families from Haiti following the earthquake there in 2021 and subsequent political unrest who often speak Creole or French, she said.

The pandemic created challenges for students across the board but was especially hard on English learners, educators said. Many didn't have home computers or internet access, and even after schools provided them, students had difficulty figuring out the technology, not to mention the challenge of learning a new language on a screen, said Hynes, the Port Washington superintendent.

English learners generally perform worse on standardized tests and have lower graduation rates than mainstream students. They also have higher absentee and dropout rates as well, educators said. 

The rate of chronic absenteeism for English learners, which was a problem before COVID shut down schools in March 2020, has worsened on Long Island. The rate increased from 20% in 2018-19 to 26% in 2022-23, state education figures showed. 

At the same time, the chronic absenteeism rate for students overall on Long Island almost doubled in that period, from 11% to about 19%, figures said. The state defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10% or more of the 180 instructional days for any reason.

Meanwhile, the Island's dropout rate for English learners stands at 18%, far higher than the 2.5% for the overall school enrollment. These figures have remained at about those levels for a decade, figures showed.

About half of English learners graduated in four years of high school in 2023, versus 92% of students overall on Long Island, figures said. Experts say English learners often take longer to graduate.

The pandemic made many gaps even larger, not just academically but in terms of interpersonal relations, Hynes said.

"We are seeing behavioral issues ... the kids struggle with friendships, being attentive to the task at hand. We need to do a better job assimilating these students and families into the school culture," Hynes said of English learners.

Brendan Klein is an English as a New Language social studies teacher at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington. The district has 33 ENL teachers, officials said.

At the moment, Klein is prepping his students for the upcoming Regents exams in U.S. and global history. In 2018, when he started teaching at the school, he had a half-dozen students per class; now he has 20.

On this day, Klein hands out sample essays in civic literacy, which students need to write for the U.S. history Regents exam. Each student receives an outline for the essay translated into their home language — most in Spanish but also two in Korean, two in Japanese and another in Ukrainian, he said.

English learners come into the public school system with a heavy burden: They have to learn English and their academic subjects, educators said. Some traveled here with families, or alone as "unaccompanied minors." Some arrive from extreme circumstances, such as war or poverty. 

"We had a family who came from Venezuela. It took them months, going through the jungle. They had to cross the Darién [Gap] and fight off animals," Uniondale's Olivares-Orellana said. Island schools are increasingly addressing the mental health of English learners, hiring more bilingual counselors and psychologists, educators said.

Many of the young people come to serve as translators for their parents and relatives, Olivares-Orellana said.

"For the little ones, it's difficult. They have to grow up so fast," she said. "They have to worry about things they shouldn't have to worry about — medical situations, court situations."

Ariana Zari, 19, recalls when she came to Port Washington two years ago from Ecuador. She traveled with her mother and father, unable to speak English, she said.

"When my parents told me [we were going to America], I knew it was going to be OK as long as we're together," she said.

Zari recalled walking through her new school, unfamiliar with English, getting lost a lot, having no friends. 

Since then, she's participated in school clubs — the Latin Dance Club, the Journeys to America program, where students shared their stories, and another program where they wrote and drew about their experiences coming here.

Klein, her social studies teacher, said he sees the stresses and strains English learners face in their new lives, and he's proud of their perseverance and work ethic.

"I always tell the students that they're the smartest in the school. They speak two languages," he said.

With Arielle Martinez

CORRECTION: Yulissa Genao originally came from the Dominican Republic to a school in Rhode Island. It was at that Rhode Island school where her classmates made fun of her due to her accent and lack of English language skills. That location was not included in earlier versions of this story.

The number of English language learners in Long Island schools has surged over the past decade — almost 60% — creating challenges such as a shortage of specialized teachers and addressing the students' problems with attendance and dropping out, educators say.

English learners increased from 27,477 in the 2012-13 school year to 43,675 in 2022-23, a jump of 16,198, according to figures from the state Department of Education. During that same period, they increased from 6% of the Island's student population to about 11% of the total Island enrollment of 421,990 students, state figures show.

Many districts have seen their numbers more than double in a decade, including Bay Shore, Bethpage, Bridgehampton, Center Moriches, Elmont, Garden City, Lawrence, Merrick, North Bellmore, North Shore and Seaford, according to a Newsday analysis of state figures.

The students are integrated into the student population upon their arrival, picking up the language through a mix of targeted English instruction, bilingual classes and mainstream instruction, educators said.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The number of English language learners in Long Island schools has risen significantly over the past decade — some 60% — to a total of 43,675.
  • The swelling numbers have created a gamut of challenges, such as a shortage of specialized teachers, increasingly diverse languages and addressing students' struggles with absenteeism and dropping out.
  • In the past decade, English learners increased from 6% of the Island's student population to about 11%.

In addition, educators said, more than ever, they are embracing students' home language and culture, using them as springboards to help them learn English, rather than, as in years past, simply trying to replace them.

"There are very significant changes going on in our schools right now," said Selene Yoel, Stony Brook University's director of bilingual programs and teaching English as a second language.

The Island is suffering from a shortage of teachers for English learners, she said.

"I would say most districts [on Long Island] need more teachers who are certified in English as a New Language," Yoel said. 

Selene Yoel, Stony Brook University's director of bilingual programs, said...

Selene Yoel, Stony Brook University's director of bilingual programs, said she believes Long Island needs more teachers for English learners. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

The growth in the number of English learners echoes the population changes on Long Island, if not the nation, said Martin R. Cantor, executive director of the Long Island Center for Socioeconomic Policy.

"You can see it in the demographics — white down, Black constant and Latino up," Cantor said. "The answer is America — there have always been waves of immigrants."

The stakes are high when it comes to educating young people who speak little to no English, he said.

"You don't want them becoming a burden on society," Cantor said. "They have to contribute to the economy rather than rain on it."

The increase in English learners comes as the overall student enrollment on Long Island has declined 7% in a decade, as schools grapple with families having fewer children, an aging population and people leaving who can't afford to live here, according to state figures.

State law requires schools to educate them regardless of their immigration status. The state Department of Education classifies English learners as students who, because of their foreign birth or ancestry, speak a language other than English and understand little or no English.

Amid Long Island's patchwork of 124 school districts, some 22 districts have student populations in which at least 1 in every 5 students is an English learner, according to state education figures. Those districts include Hempstead, where 43% of students are English learners; Roosevelt (26%), Westbury (30%), Brentwood (36%), Hampton Bays (32%) and Riverhead (37%).

22

LI school districts where at least 1 in every 5 students is an English learner

The swelling number of English learners comes as the topic of immigration stands as a front-burner issue in American politics.

"English language learners, normally without money or wealth, will normally settle with relatives and friends in existing homes in existing communities on Long Island," Cantor said. "That's why Long Island's zoning, housing policies and neighborhood opposition has little impact on where migrants settle. In fact, over the past 10 years, existing households have become more dense with more people living in existing living space."


The number of English language learners in Long Island schools has surged over the past decade by almost 60%. Forty-two districts have seen their numbers more than double.


A struggle to adapt

Yulissa Genao, 16, recalled coming to the Comsewogue district five years ago. The district has seen its population of English learners increase by 40% in a decade, to 244 students, state figures showed. English learners represent 7% of overall enrollment.

Genao said she originally came from the Dominican Republic to a school in Rhode Island, landing in fifth grade in the middle of the school year, knowing little English and having no teacher who spoke Spanish.

"When I first came here, everything was difficult," said Genao. "In the Dominican Republic, I was a really good student, but now I was nobody."

Months passed before she understood the language of this new world, and even then she was afraid to speak up, worried she would make embarrassing mistakes. She wanted to play sports but felt too overwhelmed to try, she said.

"Classmates would make fun of me for my accent. Every time a teacher would teach me a word, I'd say it and other students would laugh and mock me," she said of her experience in Rhode Island.

Rosa Antelo, who teaches English learners at Comsewogue High School, is an example of a local English learner who grew into a local teacher. Antelo came to the district in 1994 from the Dominican Republic and was placed in 11th grade. She graduated from high school and later Stony Brook University, then began teaching Comsewogue's English learners in 1999, she said.

"When I started as a student, there were seven [English learner] students in the high school, and they had two teachers for the entire district," Antelo said. The school now has about 86 English learners and five teachers, officials said. "For me, my ESL teacher was everything. My mom passed away [about a year after Antelo arrived here]. She became my second mother."

Comsewogue High School teacher Rosa Antelo was once an English...

Comsewogue High School teacher Rosa Antelo was once an English language learning student. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

Antelo met Genao shortly after the teen came to Comsewogue High School in 2022 and has served as a mentor to her over the years. She translated for Genao so she could join the school softball team. Genao is finishing her sophomore year.

Antelo's message to the students: "Don't give up. You've made too many sacrifices."

Christa Stevenson, a program director for Eastern Suffolk BOCES who works with districts across the Island on English learner programs, said many schools are actively recruiting these teachers. State and federal grants offer tuition assistance, and some districts have begun to grow their own teachers in this field, getting students interested in the field while still in high school, she said.

Yoel, who trains teachers to work with English learners, said many mainstream teachers receive limited college education on instructing them. Misconceptions about the students can sometimes lead to them being labeled as having a learning disability and placed in special education, Yoel said.

"I worry that there are over-referrals into special ed," she said. 

In Riverhead, drawn to work

As soon as the warm weather arrives, many English learners at Riverhead High School disappear from class, said Emily Sanz, director of programs and community outreach for them.

"Once spring comes, it gets pretty empty" in 11th- and 12th-grade classes for them, she said.

"They're taking landscaping and other jobs to help their families," she said.

Some are unable to catch up with their studies and drop out, Sanz said.

This school year, Riverhead began an evening academy to help those students keep their noses in the books, she said. Next school year, the district will begin programs for those immigrants who had received little education in their native countries, she said.

Riverhead is among the districts most impacted by the increase in English learners, attracted to the area for jobs in the wineries and other agricultural work, she said. The district has seen their numbers increase 192% in a decade, adding 1,321 students for a current total of 2,009, state figures showed. 

192%

Increase in the number of English-language learning students in a decade in the Riverhead school district

These students, who made up 14% of Riverhead's student population in 2012-13, now make up 37%, according to the figures. 

The bulk of K-12 funding for English learners comes from state and local revenue, much of that from local property taxes. The full costs of educating these students is complicated and hard to pin down, as it is divided among several budget items, educators said.

Federal funding comes in the form of Title III money. Port Washington received $105,151 for this school year in that federal funding, school officials said.

The district's budget line for English learners indicates the district will spend $4 million on them next school year, an increase of 3.7%, or $141,902. Officials noted these expenses are blended into other budget lines.

Many districts have responded to the growing numbers of English learners by creating or expanding programs, offering more mentor opportunities and creating relationships with community groups that help them.

The Copiague district operates a Saturday academy for those learning English. Mattituck-Cutchogue has an after-school initiative. Port Washington runs a twilight program so working students can take courses in the evening "so at least they can sleep in," Superintendent Michael Hynes said.

Hurdles to graduation

When an English learner disappears from school, it can be difficult to track them down, said Estrella Olivares-Orellana, Uniondale's director of multilingual learners. Many families are transient, moving due to new job opportunities. Parents often don't notify the district of the change, she said.

Uniondale is another district that has greatly changed, as the number of English learners has grown by 51% in a decade, to 1,376. They account for nearly a quarter of the student body, according to state figures.

Olivares-Orellana said she does not see the growth associated with the influx of refugees to New York City, but rather from established families here. Some of them are born here. The district has seen more families from Haiti following the earthquake there in 2021 and subsequent political unrest who often speak Creole or French, she said.

The pandemic created challenges for students across the board but was especially hard on English learners, educators said. Many didn't have home computers or internet access, and even after schools provided them, students had difficulty figuring out the technology, not to mention the challenge of learning a new language on a screen, said Hynes, the Port Washington superintendent.

English learners generally perform worse on standardized tests and have lower graduation rates than mainstream students. They also have higher absentee and dropout rates as well, educators said. 

The rate of chronic absenteeism for English learners, which was a problem before COVID shut down schools in March 2020, has worsened on Long Island. The rate increased from 20% in 2018-19 to 26% in 2022-23, state education figures showed. 

At the same time, the chronic absenteeism rate for students overall on Long Island almost doubled in that period, from 11% to about 19%, figures said. The state defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10% or more of the 180 instructional days for any reason.

Meanwhile, the Island's dropout rate for English learners stands at 18%, far higher than the 2.5% for the overall school enrollment. These figures have remained at about those levels for a decade, figures showed.

About half of English learners graduated in four years of high school in 2023, versus 92% of students overall on Long Island, figures said. Experts say English learners often take longer to graduate.

The pandemic made many gaps even larger, not just academically but in terms of interpersonal relations, Hynes said.

"We are seeing behavioral issues ... the kids struggle with friendships, being attentive to the task at hand. We need to do a better job assimilating these students and families into the school culture," Hynes said of English learners.

English as a New Language teacher Brendan Klein with senior Ariana Zari at...

English as a New Language teacher Brendan Klein with senior Ariana Zari at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington. Credit: Newsday/Kendall Rodriguez

Newcomers' heavy burden

Brendan Klein is an English as a New Language social studies teacher at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington. The district has 33 ENL teachers, officials said.

At the moment, Klein is prepping his students for the upcoming Regents exams in U.S. and global history. In 2018, when he started teaching at the school, he had a half-dozen students per class; now he has 20.

On this day, Klein hands out sample essays in civic literacy, which students need to write for the U.S. history Regents exam. Each student receives an outline for the essay translated into their home language — most in Spanish but also two in Korean, two in Japanese and another in Ukrainian, he said.

English learners come into the public school system with a heavy burden: They have to learn English and their academic subjects, educators said. Some traveled here with families, or alone as "unaccompanied minors." Some arrive from extreme circumstances, such as war or poverty. 

"We had a family who came from Venezuela. It took them months, going through the jungle. They had to cross the Darién [Gap] and fight off animals," Uniondale's Olivares-Orellana said. Island schools are increasingly addressing the mental health of English learners, hiring more bilingual counselors and psychologists, educators said.

Many of the young people come to serve as translators for their parents and relatives, Olivares-Orellana said.

"For the little ones, it's difficult. They have to grow up so fast," she said. "They have to worry about things they shouldn't have to worry about — medical situations, court situations."

Ariana Zari, 19, recalls when she came to Port Washington two years ago from Ecuador. She traveled with her mother and father, unable to speak English, she said.

"When my parents told me [we were going to America], I knew it was going to be OK as long as we're together," she said.

Zari recalled walking through her new school, unfamiliar with English, getting lost a lot, having no friends. 

Since then, she's participated in school clubs — the Latin Dance Club, the Journeys to America program, where students shared their stories, and another program where they wrote and drew about their experiences coming here.

Klein, her social studies teacher, said he sees the stresses and strains English learners face in their new lives, and he's proud of their perseverance and work ethic.

"I always tell the students that they're the smartest in the school. They speak two languages," he said.

With Arielle Martinez

CORRECTION: Yulissa Genao originally came from the Dominican Republic to a school in Rhode Island. It was at that Rhode Island school where her classmates made fun of her due to her accent and lack of English language skills. That location was not included in earlier versions of this story.

Latest videos

YOU'VE BEEN SELECTED

FOR OUR BEST OFFER ONLY 25¢ for 5 months

Unlimited Digital Access.

cancel anytime.