“English plus 99, so 100 languages.”
That’s not how many languages are spoken in the country, or even Alaska. As of last count there were 100 different languages actively heard in the Anchorage School District, Philip Farson said.
Farson directs the district’s English Language Learners program, designed to help students adapt to an English-centric learning environment. More than 1,000 new students enter the program every year, he said.
As a result, he is one of the first people in Anchorage to see the city’s changing population through its new students and their parents.
There are now 100 languages spoken in the Anchorage School District. From 1993 to 2015, Spanish remains tops in non-English languages spoken, and Lao is still fifth. Hmong-speaking students have jumped up to second place with 1,067.
Currently, about 6,200 students are in the language program, 13 percent of the ASD student body. In all, more than 10,000 students are in, or have graduated from, English Language Learners; that’s one-in-five public Anchorage students.
At the beginning of last school year, minority students comprised 57 percent the district, up from 45 percent 10 years prior, according to ASD.
Farson said it’s more than just the surface data, however. What sets Anchorage apart from other districts nationwide is the diversity among traditional minority groups, he said.
Often, a district will have a dominant second language, such as Spanish, and very few speakers of other languages, according to Farson.
“There are many districts that have as many or more languages than we do,” he said. “It’s just that they don’t have them in the same kind of mix that we do.”
While the number of students that primarily speak Spanish at home was second to English with 1,344 speakers last school year in Anchorage, Hmong, Samoan and Filipino speakers are not far behind.
Yupik, the language of Western Alaska Natives, was fifth and spoken by 279 students, according to ASD data. The next highest Alaska Native language on the list was Inupiaq at eighth, spoken by 120 students. It is the language of Alaska Natives from the North Slope and Northwest Alaska regions.
At every level, elementary to high school, ASD has some of the most diverse schools in the country as a result, according to U.S. Department of Education metrics.
Farson and his staff of 150 teachers and paraprofessionals try to help each student understand English academically, while at the same time encouraging the students and parents to embrace their home language. He said some parents eliminate their primary language from their homes in an effort to immerse their children in English, a noble effort that can sometimes stunt a child’s vocabulary and language development.
“We encourage (parents) to speak whatever language they are most fluent in,” Farson said. “We want the students to have models of rich language. The reason for that is, if you’re using a rich vocabulary at home that will transfer over.”
The worldwide immigration to Anchorage is a relatively recent phenomenon.
“I don’t think people realize just how diverse Anchorage really is, how much it’s changed over time and how much it continues to change,” Farson said.
Historical census data backs him up.
Nearly 84 percent of Anchorage residents identified as white or Caucasian in 1980. The next largest racial group was African Americans at 5.2 percent of the city’s population, followed closely by Alaska Natives or American Indians at 5.1 percent. People of Hispanic origin were 3 percent of Anchorage in 1980.
By 2013, Caucasians made up exactly two-thirds of city residents. Asians, less than 3 percent of Anchorage’s population in 1980, were nearly 9 percent two years ago. The Alaska Native-American Indian population had risen to 8.1 percent and Hispanics or Latinos were all of a sudden 8.6 percent of the Anchorage population.
Also, Pacific Islanders showed up on the list of the largest racial groups in Anchorage at 2.3 percent, while those identifying as bi-racial were nearly 8 percent of the city. African Americans were 6.3 percent of Anchorage in 2013.
Nearly 10 percent of Anchorage residents were foreign-born in 2013, and 17.3 percent did not speak English, according to U.S. Census data.
By comparison, about 78 percent of the U.S. population identified as white in 2013.
Much of the growth of minority groups in Alaska’s largest city has happened within the last 15 years.
Anchorage’s population increased 12.1 percent between 2000 and 2010. Its collective Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population grew almost 40 percent during the decade, and the Hispanic or Latino population increased by 23 percent.
The Alaska Native-American Indian population kept pace with overall population growth at about 12 percent, while the number of Caucasians and African Americans each increased by less than 3 percent.
About 10 percent of all Alaska businesses were owned by immigrants in 2010, according to the Immigration Policy Center, or nearly 3,400 statewide.
The reasons behind the moves obviously vary as much as the people themselves, but a recent influx of Middle Eastern and North African refugees is sadly a result of conflict. Farson said he is beginning to see more Arabic-speaking individuals in his work, a trend he expects to continue.
“Ten years ago we had no Sudanese; now we have 700 (in Anchorage),” he said.
For many of the city’s residents, particularly refugees relocated by government officials, Alaska is all these newcomers know of the United States, Farson said.
“America is whatever we are making it for them to be, and that’s true even for a lot of those that come here by choice,” he said.
Cook Inlet’s earliest settlers, of course, were the Dena’ina. The Alaska Native people had permanent settlements north of the Anchorage Bowl at Eklutna, across Knik Arm from what is now Anchorage and along the western shore of the Inlet at Tyonek.
Early immigrants to the city of Anchorage were primarily immigrants from Greece, Russia, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, according to a 2002 joint publication by U.S. Army staff at Fort Richardson and Colorado State University. They sought work building and operating the new Alaska Railroad.
Anchorage residents referred to all newcomers as “Swedes” in the early days, Cook Inlet Historical Society President James Barnett said.
Even in its early days, Anchorage was a place where immigrants were not marginalized like they were in other parts of the country, he said.
Anchorage passed some of the America’s first anti-discrimination laws, according to Barnett.
Its lack of social classes is partially a result of Anchorage being a young city and traditions that have always favored immigrants, he said.
“We’re all newcomers,” Barnett said. “In every case as we’ve grown we’ve grown because we’ve embraced the newcomer.”
The population explosion during World War II and the early Cold War was because of military expansion in the city, which brought soldiers and airmen with ranging backgrounds from all over the country north.
As still happens today, many of the military personnel stationed in Alaska fell in love with the state and stayed, or came back when their service is complete.
More than 15 percent of Anchorage residents are veterans, compared with an average of less than 10 percent nationwide, according to the state Labor Department. Alaska has the highest number of veterans per capita of any state in the union.
More than 25 years ago, Anchorage resident and well-known community organizer Mao Tosi was one of the city’s newcomers.
“I’m Samoan — warm everything — but my heart and my soul are rooted here in Anchorage, Alaska,” Tosi said. “So it’s to know that this place becomes home.”
Tosi moved north from San Diego with his family in 1989 with the allure of jobs and a fresh start ahead, he said. Tosi was 12 years old at the time.
Since, he has witnessed Anchorage become a more colorful community not afraid to discuss racial issues, Tosi said.
“I moved here in 1989 and to see the changes from then to now, it’s what you hope for most cities, to grow in a way where there hasn’t been much in the news about the segregation or the division of our community,” he said. “That says to me that Anchorage, that Alaska, is much different from the rest of the country.”
Malcolm Roberts is an advisor to the Bridge Builders of Anchorage board of directors. He helped found the group that focuses on bringing Anchorage’s communities together as a member of former Mayor Rick Mystrom’s staff in 1996.
“It’s still that frontier mentality,” Roberts said, explaining Anchorage’s increasingly diverse population.
His wife, Cindy Roberts, traced the attitude back to the area’s pre-Anchorage, gold rush days.
“We need talent,” she said.
Before transitioning to non-denominational Alaska Pacific University in 1978, Alaska Methodist University worked to bring Pacific Islander students to Alaska, part of the reason for Anchorage’s Tongan community, Malcolm Roberts said.
People from all over the world continue to come to Anchorage for education, jobs and that welcoming attitude, according to Tosi.
He said Anchorage also benefits from being a small city, in which newcomers can easily become involved and feel as though they are a part of the overall community.
“Nowhere else in the country do I see any city move as quickly as we do when there are issues that we come together on,” Tosi said.
The fact that Anchorage is often ranked among the best cities to call home in America is not lost on those worldwide. Many newcomers quickly encourage their relatives to think about giving the city a try, according to Tosi.
“It’s spreading like wildfire that this is a good place to live,” he said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]