The five teenagers gathered around a table at Upper Darby High School had journeyed from every corner of the planet to reach this place and achieve a shared dream: a college education and a successful career.

"I want to be a dermatologist and go back to my country and help people," said Washington Saah, a 16-year-old who came from Liberia to the Philadelphia suburbs by way of Arkansas.

Maria Jimenez, 15, from Nicaragua, wants to become a psychologist, but acknowledged that learning English and fitting in has been a struggle.

"I talk to people, and they don't understand what I say," she said during an interview last week.

With students from 59 countries speaking 77 languages, Upper Darby High may be the region's most multicultural school.

In little more than a generation, the working-class, inner-ring suburb of Upper Darby Township has transformed from an enclave for Greek and Armenian families to a magnet for immigrants from around the globe, with large numbers from Africa and Bangladesh.

"You walk down the halls, and it's like being in the United Nations," said Jillian McGilvery, coordinator of the 800-student English Language Learners (ELL) program.

She said the top five languages spoken by students today are Spanish, Bengali, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Punjabi, and that in addition to Bangladesh, the leading countries of origin are Liberia, India, Pakistan, and Haiti.

The school has also become a living laboratory for researchers trying to solve a modern American quandary:

Why do immigrant children attend college at a dramatically lower rate than their American-born classmates, even while the parents of foreign-born students are slightly better educated than the parents of the U.S.-born kids?

Yasuko Kanno, an associate education professor at Temple University who studied college rates for English-language learners at Upper Darby, said only one of every eight went on to earn a bachelor's degree, while the comparable rate for native-speaking students was one of three.

Roughly half of the students who arrived speaking a foreign language did not attend college, she found.

"What really killed me is that they didn't even apply," said Kanno, who is writing a book about her research. She cited factors ranging from a lack of awareness about the basics of taking the SATs or enrolling in Advanced Placement courses to a lack of confidence in English skills.

Experts such as Kanno agree that lagging academic achievement among non-English-speaking arrivals will become a social and economic drain if the problem is not addressed. By 2025, a quarter of U.S. public school students are projected to be non-English-speaking immigrants.

A decade ago, about 3.5 million schoolchildren in the United States were English Language Learners. Now it's more than five million - almost 11 percent of all public school students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Philadelphia students speak more than 100 languages, with the most diverse school, Northeast High, featuring about 50 of them, officials said.

But increasingly, immigrants are bypassing big cities and moving directly to the suburbs.

Amanda Berkson-Shilcock of the Welcome Center for New Pennsylvanians, which connects international newcomers with economic opportunities, said 61 percent of immigrants in the region live outside the city.

The new arrivals represent not just a wide array of countries but also a diversity of experiences, from well-educated elites to survivors of war, famine, and refugee camps.

Overall, they are more likely to have college degrees than native-born residents. In Delaware County, 41 percent of immigrants are college graduates, compared with 34 percent of Americans - similar to findings across the region.

On a typical day at Upper Darby, ELL students attend an 80-minute class in which they are immersed in English, assisted by peer tutors who use work sheets to help them learn everything from the basics to more-advanced language skills. They also get help in their subject classes, such as math, where an extra teacher is assigned to help them with word problems, and at after-school tutoring.

Betsy Rymes, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote a book about Upper Darby after spending four years following from 15 to 20 ELL students and their teacher, found that immigrants are often challenged by the need for radically different language skills in different settings during their day - at home, in ELL classes, and in their traditional classes.

"In ELL class, they are very vocal and talking and using multiple languages," she said. "When they go to class where there are English-speaking students, they get quiet."

Peer tutors - American youths who teach English to one or two students - help with language and social skills.

"Right away, they have an American friend," said Rosemarie Taddei, a teacher who started Upper Darby's ELL program 30 years ago.

On a recent day, 17-year-old Amrit Kaur was working with Tingting Chen, 18, from China, and Anel Gaspariano, 17, from Mexico. Both have been in the United States for four years, but they still struggle with English.

"At the end [of the year], I want to see how much I've helped them," Kaur said.

Nearby, Gabriella Vizzarri, 18, was tutoring Herlin Adonias Lopez-Hernandez, 16, who came from Honduras one month ago and spoke virtually no English, on the verb to be.

"I'm his only connection to the language," said Vizzarri, who was friendly and liberally praised her pupil. "I'm the person that will get him to communicate with everyone else."

The immigrant students agree that their high school experience in America is better than what they left behind.

"If you don't do the work, they beat you," said Jannat Rahman, 16, of her school in Bangladesh. "They beat my hand with a ruler so hard. I'll never forget that."

They say they appreciate things such as free school lunches, and they sit with a mix of students in the cafeteria. Saah, an enthusiastic singer, said he's looking forward to trying out for the school's production of Legally Blonde.

The problem comes, literally, with taking it to the next level: Getting more English Language Learners into college.

Kanno said the gap in awareness among immigrant families of how to access college information seems to be greater than school officials realized.

"A lot of information is not reaching ELL students," she said.

There's a new focus - both in Upper Darby and around the country - on the lack of ELL students signing up for Advanced Placement courses, which are viewed as a stepping-stone to college. McGilvery acknowledged that fewer than 10 ELL students are in AP classes, adding, "It's something we want to work on."

Lynne Lighthill, the school's ELL department chair, said Upper Darby had launched initiatives to address the problems raised in Kanno's report.

This fall, counselors offered specialized presentations on the college-entrance process, worked on career surveys with 10th graders, and encouraged the students to sign up for the PSAT, the test that precedes the SATs.

Lighthill also said the district is trying to encourage more immigrant parents to attend college-related workshops and to educate families about financial-aid programs, since the cost of higher education in America is intimidating to many.

In the end, the biggest hurdle may be one of the simplest ones: confidence.

"I'm too shy to try stuff," Rahman said. "I wanted to, but I don't have the courage to speak in front of people."

610-313-8232 @kathyboccella