Cultural change spoken in 64 languages at Boone County Schools

Where cows, tobacco barns and tractors once dotted southern and western Boone County, some 25 years later Boone has transformed from rural to suburban, then into a thriving industrial area. The altered landscape now features booming cargo, manufacturing, and warehousing industries.

Cultural changes have come with the mix, nowhere more evident than in Boone County Schools. Most residents are familiar with the influx of Hispanic and Japanese residents in past decades. In fact, though, a total of 64 languages besides English are spoken by students in Boone schools.

They come from South America, Asia, Europe and Africa – from Albania to Zimbabwe.
In 2009 the school system had 136 students whose primary language was not English. Today Boone County has 1,768 of these so-called “English Learners,” or ELs. That amounts to 9% of district enrollment.

Postponed three years by the pandemic, the International Festival hosted by Boone County Schools drew an overflow crowd Feb. 25 at Ryle High School. Most participants wore national clothing to celebrate the day of diversity and English Learners. “We have a very colorful culture and wanted to share some of our food and traditions,” says Liza O’Neal, who helped staff the Mexico booth. Up and down the hallways, visitors peered at maps, plucked musical instruments, and looked at national artifacts at this mini-United Nations.

Asma Shita, a native of Libya and an EL teacher herself, spent the day at a booth touting the cultures of Arabic speaking countries. During a break, she and friends from Egypt and Jordan went to the Japan booth, the undisputed hit at International Day. They were offered Japanese kimonos to wear as their photo was taken, its green-screen background featuring Japanese cherry blossom trees. Wearing hijabs and the kimonos, the friends smiled broadly in the cross-cultural moment.

Fried plantains served by the Ivory Coast booth were quite tasty. And a long line formed to try small pancakes cooked up at the Colombia booth; it was crowded, too, at the Somalia booth which served sambusa snacks. Amid so many scents and languages, the Upper Gym became crowded as costumed dancers warmed up to Latin music before their scheduled performances.

Why is such a variety of languages – from Arabic to Zulu – spoken by Boone students?

“We do have very attractive employment here,” says Geniene Piche, the district’s director of language learners. “We also have a lot of international companies. We have Bosch (based in Germany) and Safran (France) and all of these companies that employ experts from around the world to come and live here.”

There's no other country like the United States because of all the opportunities that it offers, says Mexico native Jacqueline Cacique, who moved to Florence five years ago. Her husband, Robert, a citizen of Austria, was transferred here by his employer.

It was “love at first sight” when the couple met 16 years ago. She hails from Guanajuata, Mexico. Cacique has degrees in preschool education and business administration and once owned a travel agency in Mexico. She has a work permit, but because her professional degrees are not recognized here, she works in housekeeping in a hotel. Her daughter Melanie attends Ignite Institute, Boone’s all-STEM school, and son Christopher, 9, is doing well as an English Learner. Melanie has graduated from the EL program, so she is proficient in English.

Jacqueline Cacique beams at her son Christopher, 9, under the Mexican flag in an Early Learner classroom at Ockerman Elementary. Immigrants all come for different reasons, Cacique said through an interpreter. She is excited about a book she is writing called “Nosotros Los Migrantes,” which means “We the Immigrants.” Immigrants come because of earthquakes, crime, political repression, failed states. It is not easy to pull up roots. While her family is doing well, Cacique says she misses “that sensation of when you arrive
home and you feel like you're at home, actually,” Here, she doesn’t feel that way yet.

When new students arrive, they are assessed to get a sense of how far they advanced in their home country, and in English. “We work with them and their families as best as we can on their needs depending on what language it is,” says Matt Turner, Boone superintendent. “We get a number of students here that range from being able to converse very well in multiple languages and don't need assistance to some that may not understand any English at all,” he says.

What if there is zero English comprehension?

“We do have Refugee Connect, a local nonprofit that works in Northern Kentucky. And they work to assist school districts and assist families in their transition. So, they're very helpful.” Turner says the students that struggle the most are “the ones that we see that do not have a solid background in their home language. Learning another language on top of that is really challenging.”

Maki Yagi, a native of Aichi, Japan, moved to Kentucky in 2021 because of her husband’s job with a Japanese company. While Toyota left Northern Kentucky in 2017, several of its affiliated companies remain. The Yagis have three kids and speak Japanese at home.

Yagi says her children had a difficult first year in school. “It was especially difficult for my daughter (now in fifth grade). The first year, my son, who was in the third grade, made good friends right away and seemed to be enjoying himself. However, my daughter had difficulty making friends and adjusting to her environment.”

Lately, Yagi has noticed a spike in her children’s English skills. “They are also getting better at reading English, first reading paperbacks like kindergartners read, but now they are reading books that are a little thicker.”

As an English Learner teacher, Dana Dirkes splits time between Longbranch and Mann elementary schools in Union. “Between my two schools, there are 21 different languages spoken among the students,” she says. “We are quickly becoming a very diverse area. A lot of families are moving into the area for jobs from all over the world.”

What impresses Dirkes most about EL students and their families is that regardless of culture,“all of our core values are the same.” She gives an assignment in which students write about family traditions, their favorite foods, holidays, and the towns they came from. “Even though we all look different, speak different languages, and have different beliefs and religions, everyone still values their time with their family. Every family has a holiday tradition that means a great deal to them. Each kid has a food that his or her mom or dad makes that they enjoy the most. 

“At the end of the day, they’re all still kids,” Dirkes says.

Six schools in Boone County Schools have 20% or more of English Learners: Jones Middle, Collins Elementary, Florence Elementary, Ockerman Elementary, Boone County High School, and Steeplechase Elementary.

Five schools are in the 10% to 20% range: Ockerman Middle, Ryle High School, Yealey Elementary, Stephens Elementary and Erpenbeck Elementary.

The remaining 17 schools are under 10% EL. Each school has a computer device in their front office to allow newcomers to ask questions in their native language. Employees and staff consider the ILA Pro Device invaluable.

Teachers in the higher population schools are offered SIOP training. The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol is an approach to teaching English Learners that integrates language and content instruction. Based on the concept that all teachers need greater support to help Early Learners as schools become more diverse, it will eventually be available to all teachers.

The district also offers 10 Northern Kentucky University scholarships to students who have succeeded in their EL program.

Thirteen languages are spoken in teacher Lisa Peters’ Ockerman Elementary classroom. A pink heart brightens the concrete wall, decorated with the label #LoveOurLanguages. It lists the 13 languages including Spanish, Chinese, French, and Arabic. “Some of these children speak two or three languages. For example, the children who come from the Congo speak French and Lingala and sometimes a tribal language as well,” she says.

Across the cultures, she is most surprised by the respect families show toward education. “Honestly, just the respect for education and for teachers. Immense, immense respect for teachers (from) the Hispanic culture in particular,” Peters says.
Immigrants come for jobs and better opportunities. Some, who are refugees, come from countries where life is too dangerous.

Rosa, a Florence resident, remembers the day after her house in Nicaragua was ransacked. She’d gone to Venezuela for a few days to visit relatives. She came back to find her home picked apart, room by room. Rosa, who asked that her actual name not be used, said through an interpreter she was harassed because she was too close to people in an opposition party. She was an observant Catholic whose religious leader was put under house arrest. The threat of violence by paramilitary squads was always there. Her city of over 100,000, Matagalpa, had been the scene of civil and religious strife. Men in dark clothing and masks took photos of her house.

She left in June 2021, traveling by bus through Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. Citing sociopolitical reasons, she and her two children applied for U.S. political asylum after crossing the Arizona border. They arrived in Florence on July 19, 2021. While she has relatives here, it has been hard to get established. She gave up her house, which she owned, to leave her beleaguered country.

For her daughter, a Ryle sophomore, the first days at school were uncomfortable and nervous. Gradually she learned the language a bit better and she’s able to communicate with English Learners teachers. Other EL students help her with English. She feels a lot safer here and is confident she’s getting an education. In Nicaragua it was too unsafe to play soccer outdoors. She hopes to get involved here.

Rosa’s biggest hope is a good education for her children.

Meanwhile, a happy event is planned in April at Eden Park when her family celebrates her daughter’s quinceanera, an elaborate party for Hispanic girls when they turn 15. She showed a digital photo of her daughter’s dress. The blue and white ballgown is like something out of “Cinderella.” Rosa remains worried about her hometown. Her bishop last month was sentenced to 26 years in prison by a government that doesn’t have to say why. Perhaps her beautiful daughter’s quinceanera will help lift Rosa’s shroud of sadness.
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Read more articles by Nancy Daly.

Nancy Daly is a veteran Kentucky and Cincinnati journalist. An "Army brat" who found a home in Kentucky, she is a University of Kentucky graduate. Her hobbies include reading, photography, watching streaming TV, including "Succession" and "Andor," and playing Alphabet Game on Zoom with five siblings across the globe.