GARDEN CITY 1 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. “We aren’t just teaching the students a new language. 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. 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.”

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.

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.”