Learning English and Leadership in Houston

Houston is America on demographic fast-forward. In the first decade of this century, the metro area’s foreign-born population grew 48 percent, compared to 28 percent for the nation as a whole. More than 42 percent of Houston’s children have at least one foreign-born parent, compared with a national rate of 23 percent.

Not surprisingly, Houston also has one of the highest numbers of limited English proficient (LEP) residents of any metro in the nation, ranking 5th among large metropolitan areas. Over two-thirds of LEP residents in the region are in the workforce, but typically earn only about $25,000 a year.

As Jill Wilson explains in her new paper, these workers, and their children, will account for almost all workforce growth in the coming decades, not just in Houston but in the nation as a whole. Realizing how much depends on the success of these families, public, philanthropic, private and civic actors are collaborating to expand access to English-language education, and thereby bolster earnings for families and create better outcomes for children.

Neighborhood Centers, Inc., which Bruce Katz and I have written about previously, is helping LEP residents of the greater Houston region, including in suburbs where community self-perception and public services have not always caught up with demographic realities. Neighborhood Centers is one of the largest nonprofit service providers in the country, operating throughout the state of Texas, but its work is concentrated in community centers located throughout the sprawling Houston metropolis. One of those centers is in Pasadena, a once middle-class white suburb that now has a 20 percent poverty rate and is two-thirds Hispanic.

In 2006, Neighborhood Centers uncovered a huge gap in Pasadena between demand for English language classes and their availability (something Wilson notes is common). According to Pasadena resident Roberta Leal, who I interviewed early last year for the book The Metropolitan Revolution, “Harris County [public school officials] were saying, ‘We have the capacity to host the classes, we just can’t get to the people.’ On the other hand, Neighborhood Centers is saying ‘We have the people, we need the resources, the instructors. Let’s meet in the middle, let’s make this happen.’” Today Neighborhood Centers coordinates a substantial adult education and English language program in Pasadena. 

This effort can provide tangible benefits to families and communities: Wilson’s paper documents an earnings premium of between 24 and 39 percent (depending on educational attainment) for English proficient workers versus LEP workers. “In some cases,” she notes, “better English proficiency is associated with more of a difference in earnings than is higher educational attainment.”

But there are also benefits that defy easy quantification. Leal, whose mother learned English at a Neighborhood Centers program in Pasadena, then taught other LEP immigrants at the same community center, says that offering English language instruction sends a strong message to immigrants in particular. “It says we’re not upset that you came to this country and you don’t speak English. It says, we’re glad you came here, come to our home, we can teach you something new and get you out into the community to be your own leader.”