Hanging alongside United States and Alaska flags inside Wendler Middle School, brightly colored posters tout the school's diverse student body with uplifting messages and drawings of students from different ethnic backgrounds.

Located at the intersection of Northern Lights Boulevard and Lake Otis Parkway, the school whose motto is "Wendler welcomes all learners" is at the heart of Anchorage's march toward becoming one of the nation's most diverse cities.

Like most middle schools, its hallways are packed with chattering adolescents, but at Wendler, you're likely to hear Spanish, Arabic or Swahili in addition to English.

The school is home to the Anchorage School District's newcomer center, where students from other countries spend their first days in the district. The center is staffed with English teachers who work with students struggling to learn a new language.

"It can be pretty overwhelming," said Shirley Greeninger, a refugee liaison support teacher.

Getting students proficient in English is a big priority in a district where one in five students comes from a household where English is not a first language.

"We have about 6,000 students in the program," said Phil Farson, the district's English Language Learners (ELL) program director. "There's another 4,000 who no longer require our services. All told, that's 10,000 kids -- or over 20 percent of the Anchorage School District population -- has either been in the ELL program or is currently in it."

Among ELL students in the district, 23 percent report Spanish as their first language, followed closely by Hmong (18 percent), Samoan (17 percent), Filipino (13 percent) and Yup'ik (5 percent). Lao, Inupiaq, Nuer, Korean and Russian round out the top 10. Those are the most common ones, Farson said, but the district has students who speak 99 different languages other than English.

Greeninger said most students pick up English within two years of arriving in Anchorage, but it often takes five years before they're proficient enough to have "academic understanding."

"Talking to someone at lunch over pizza is different than understanding a biology lesson," she said.

That's why the district works to get kids as comfortable as possible as quickly as possible with their adopted language. That can include extra language sessions or, for high schoolers, spending half their day at Wendler to catch up on language lessons.

"If they don't know English, they're going to struggle," Farson said. "We have several different types of support."

'There aren't many schools that look like this'

University of Alaska Anchorage sociology professor Chad Farrell has spent several years studying Anchorage's diversity by using mathematical formulas to show just how diverse parts of the city are. His work made headlines after the 2010 U.S. Census showed Mountain View, on the city's east side, to be the most diverse neighborhood in the country.

But how exactly is diversity defined? Simply put, an area has to have many different groups of people in relatively similar proportions to score highly on the "diversity index," which Farrell and his colleagues at Penn State University use to quantify an area's ethnic diversity.

"The more groups there are and the more equally sized they are, the more demographic diversity you have in an area," he said.

Anchorage's neighborhoods are unique because they include members of all seven demographic categories recognized by the government -- white, black, Hispanic/Latino, Alaska Native/American Indian, mixed race, Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander -- in large numbers.

"There are few areas in the United States that have the mix of groups and the presence of groups in significant sizes like we do," Farrell said.

Anchorage's diversity, he explained, is the result of several factors. The city of about 300,000 has a large military population, and its overall immigrant population of 27,000 ranks the city 119th nationally. There are particularly large Asian/Pacific Islander and Native populations. Farrell said the city ranks 30th among 366 metropolitan areas in the diversity index and is fifth among medium-sized U.S. cities.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Anchorage is about 67 percent white, 8 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 7 percent Native, 6.8 percent multiracial, 6.7 percent Latino and 4.2 percent black.

When Farrell crunched the numbers for public schools in Anchorage, he found the numbers are even more striking. Among public high schools, East, Bartlett and West are the three most diverse in the nation. Even the city's less diverse schools score in the top 1 percent nationally.

"Even the schools that aren't at the top of the list, if they weren't being compared to these top three they'd have kind of a remarkable level of diversity," he said.

At the middle school level, Clark ranked first nationally, followed by Begich, Wendler, Romig and Hawaii's Aliamanu Middle School. Central and Hanshew were sixth and seventh.

Perhaps the most impressive display of diversity is at the elementary school level. Farrell said the nation's 19 most diverse schools are in Anchorage, led by Wonder Park's 98.5 diversity score. That means the school's 345 students are an almost unheard of mix of all ethnic groups.

"There aren't many schools that look like this," Farrell said.

Less segregation by race

Farrell said Anchorage is unique in that it has large populations of Asians (the city ranks 25th in the nation for its number of Filipino residents), Pacific Islanders and Alaska Natives. Its neighborhoods also aren't as segregated as elsewhere in the country, with large amounts of Caucasian students mixed in with other groups.

"Even in our most diverse high schools, there's a significant white population, and that's not the case in many other diverse high schools in the United States," he said.

Farrell said the trend in Anchorage has been toward less segregation -- at least segregation based on race.

"Economic class, that's another story," he said. "The trend for economic segregation has been upward; the trend for ethnic segregation has been down."

Farrell said he expects the trends to continue.

"We're at the forefront of this trend toward increasing diversity in the United States," he said.

Contact reporter Matt Tunseth at 257-4335 or mtunseth@alaskadispatch.com

Most-diverse U.S. high schools, 2012-13

(with diversity index* in parenthesis)

1. East, Anchorage (95.9)

2. Bartlett, Anchorage (94.4)

3. West, Anchorage (90.3)

4. Admiral Arthur W. Radford High, Honolulu (88.0)

5. Leilehua High, Honolulu (87.4)

6. Angelo Rodriguez High, Solano, California (87.3)

7. Federal Way Senior High, Federal Way, Washington (87.3)

8. Kent-Meridian High, Kent, Washington (86.5)

9. Washington High, Parkland, Washington (86.2)

10. Liberty High, Henderson, Nevada (85.7)

Top 10 middle schools:

1. Clark, Anchorage (98.2)

2. Begich, Anchorage (95.1)

3. Wendler, Anchorage (94.3)

4. Romig, Anchorage (89.6)

5. Aliamanu, Honolulu, Hawaii (89.3)

6. Central, Anchorage (89.0)

7. Hanshwe, Anchorage (86.3)

8. Sacajawea, Federal Way, Washington (86.0)

9. Saghalie, Federal Way, Washington (85.5)

10. Mill Creek, Kent, Washington (85.3)

Top 20 elementary schools:

1. Wonder Park, Anchorage (98.5)

2. North Star, Anchorage (97.6)

3. Airport Heights, Anchorage (97.4)

4. Russian Jack, Anchorage (97.2)

5. Ptarmigan, Anchorage (97.0)

6. Mountain View, Anchorage (96.9)

7. Willow Crest, Anchorage, (96.4)

8. William Tyson, Anchorage (95.7)

9. Creekside Park, Anchorage (95.7)

10. Fairview, Anchorage (95.4)

11. College Gate, Anchorage (94.8)

12. Williwaw, Anchorage (94.6)

13. Abbott Loop, Anchorage (94.5)

14. Lake Otis, Anchorage (94.2)

15. Chester Valley, Anchorage (93.3)

16. Taku, Anchorage (92.9)

17. Lake Hood, Anchorage (92.7)

18. Nunaka Valley, Anchorage (92.6)

19. Muldoon, Anchorage, (91.1)

20. Red Hill, Honolulu, Hawaii (90.7)

* The Diversity Index uses a mathematical formula that takes into account the number of groups and their relative size to each other to determine a school's diversity based on a 0 (no diversity) to 100 (maximum diversity) scale. Sources: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "Local Education Agency (School District) Universe Study", 2012-13; Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey", 2012-13.