Early last century, Garden City welcomed strangers from afar. Coming to this western frontier meant a stop on the railroad or a treacherous ride on a covered wagon.

Today, immigrants come by car and plane, but the welcome mat is still there — especially at Garden City High School where more than 25 languages are spoken by more than 1,960 students who came to this western Kansas city from 28 countries.

“One of the biggest changes is in the different nationalities here,” said Kim Steele, the English as a second language (ESL) department leader at GCHS. “When I first came to Garden City (more than 30 years ago) it was mostly Spanish and Vietnamese.”

Some students attended school in their home countries; others did not. In some countries, students do not have access to free education; in others, classes are taught outside or stop at a lower grade. In many, including in some locations in the U.S., school revolves around the timing of the crops. Steele said one of the first tasks the teachers do with their new students is ride the elevator.

“They go in the door and exit on a different floor. It is hard for them to understand — where did they go?” Steele said.

According to Steele, many of the newcomers are afraid of the tornado sirens.

“We aren’t just teaching the students a new language,” Steele said. “We are teaching them about a new culture and a new country. The students always help each other.”

At GCHS, students are divided by their English abilities. They are able to go at their own pace through the different levels of English as a Second Language, from beginning English to intermediate to advanced to proficient classes. More than 45% of the students in the ESL program speak Spanish as their first language. These students come from Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Spain and the Philippines. There are also 80 students in the migrant program, the majority of whom speak Spanish.

“I didn’t know anything (English) when I started in the Newcomer Program,” said Jery Cantage, 19, from El Salvador. “From nothing, I can almost fully speak English now.”

Cantage, who arrived in Garden City when he was 16, wants to become a pilot and learn about medicine for animals.

Students who have come from Asia speak Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Loa, Burmese and Hindi. There are seven students from the Congo who speak Swahili and several from Somalia whose native tongue is Somali. There are also students who speak Burmese, Creole, Galician and German.

Many students are involved in extracurricular activities. Both drama and sports are popular.

Jonathan Chavez, 17, came from El Salvador. He plays soccer and wants to attend Fort Hays State University. He is in the choir and the Culture Club, with many other ESL students.

Some students come to Garden City not knowing either English or any other language that is spoken here. Juana Matias, 18, of Guatemala, only knew her native Aketeko language when she arrived.

“We went to school outdoors,” Matias said. “We have seven to five students in a room.”

Matias said that when she arrived in Garden City, she learned Spanish before she learned English.

“It was very difficult,” she said. “The hardest thing for me is speaking. Reading and writing is easier. When you speak, it’s difficult to pronounce.”

Matias would like to become a police officer after she graduates.

Ali Abdelrazek, 16, came to Garden City six years ago from Sudan. He speaks Arabic but knew a little English when he arrived.

“I knew how to speak English, but I didn’t know how to read and write,” Abdelrazek said. “You meet new people from different cultures and different races here.”

There are several languages that are only spoken by one family in the city. Currently, these languages include Quiche, Aketeko, Kirundi, Rohingya, Visaya, Saho, Oromo, Malayalam and Tigrinya.

Timnit Tesfayonnas, 15, six years ago, moved to Kansas from Eritrea in Africa. She spoke Tigrinya.

”Everything is pretty much different (here),” she said. “It was very difficult. But the teachers are amazing. They want us to do better, understand it.”

She wants to become a nurse and help others.

Many of the teachers in the ESL program come from other countries as well, including Russia, India, Mexico and the Philippines. Juan Sanchiz, of Spain, enjoys teaching ESL writing and social studies.

“I love the students,” he said. “They are eager to learn. They want to be here. They have the 'aha moment' when they find out something that they didn’t know. You could see it on their faces!”

On Monday evening, the Garden City Board of Education approved to offer the Seal of Biliteracy at GCHS. This is a program spearheaded by the Kansas State Department of Education. The purpose of this seal is to recognize students who are fluent in two or more languages, English being one of them. This seal would be placed on the transcript of each student who passes the exam. There is no curriculum required.

Currently, 24 Kansas districts are testing for nine languages, including Latin, Spanish, French, Vietnamese and German. Last year, there were 406 participants in the program. This year, Chinese, Tagalog and Lao will be added. Each certificate will indicate the languages in which the student is proficient and their level of achievement.

The process for obtaining this seal is dictated by the district and will be student initiated. No funds are required from the students. Garden City Spanish teacher Hermitey Perez-Triana was on the advisory council for this statewide project.

At this time, only some of the languages that the ESL students at GCHS speak would be able to be tested for them to receive the biliteracy seal. But the state expects to add other languages soon.

“They are wonderful kids,” said ESL teacher Kaylene Daugaard. “They have the same hopes and dreams an immigrant coming here has always had.”