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America’s schools are where immigrant students enter the larger culture

Article by William McKenzie April 10, 2014 //   9 minute read

America’s rapid demographic change is one of the most important elements in the nation’s modern narrative.

This storyline will only grow larger, too, when you consider that the Census Bureau projects we will become a majority-minority country in another 30 years. The greatest number of Americans will remain white, but no group will have a majority. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population is expected to boom. The Census Bureau projects it will double between now and 2060, when nearly one in three Americans will be Hispanic.

As our population shifts, it also will include a significant number of young people who are new to America and lack a working knowledge of English. The latest data from the federal government reports that 10 percent of America’s students are English-language learners.

In major states like Texas and California, those numbers are well past 10 percent. In Texas, 900,000 of the state’s 5.1 million students are English language learners. In California, nearly a third fit that category.

No part of this evolving story about America’s diversity will matter more than the role schools play in preparing the nation for its future. They will either equip all students to become part of the American mainstream, or campuses will ensure some students, especially from immigrant families, reside in a parallel universe.

That sounds stark. But this is one reason – a compelling one, I would argue -- why education is and will remain a civil rights issue. Schools will determine in part whether immigrant students become our next leaders, business executives and medical researchers, among other critical occupations.

To be sure, diverse cultures undoubtedly enrich America’s texture. One of my favorite Dallas streets is Jefferson Boulevard. Along this Oak Cliff mainstay, you find quinceanera shops alongside taquerias alongside retail stores. For the most part, each caters to nearby Hispanic residents. This is no ubiquitous strip mall. Jefferson exudes a wonderful sense of place.

Yet America cannot survive without the ideal of e pluribus unum extending into our future. This reality returns us to the nation’s campuses. On them, students will either learn English or not, grasp America’s history or not, and acquire math skills or not.

Let me offer four ways in which I think schools can enable immigrant students to make sure the results are positive.

First, set expectations—The student body of the Pharr–San Juan-Alamo district in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley is 99 percent Hispanic, 89 percent economically disadvantaged and 41 percent English language learners. Put directly, those demographics do not always translate into a college-going culture.

Yet 2013 data from the Texas Education Agency shows that Pharr-San Juan-Alamo students are comparable to some of the state’s highest-performing charter schools when it comes to being “post-secondary ready.” In other words, they are on track for college or a decent job after high school.

Generally, traditional public schools don’t score as well as Pharr-San Juan-Alamo did on post-secondary readiness. But it exceeded the state’s target score in that category.

Here’s even more impressive data, as Education Week reports: The district’s high school graduation rate is about 88 percent, which is 10 percent higher than the state’s average. 

That is no small feat, but neither is it accidental. Daniel King, the superintendent, has consistently set a high bar for his district’s students since he became superintendent in 2007.

King’s willingness to elevate standards for his students, innovate with programs like summer institutes for entering ninth graders, and work to get dropouts back in school has attracted the attention of organizations like Educate Texas. It is working with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district to create high schools that also allow students to earn college credit. King actually has a plan to get 50 percent of the district’s high school students to earn some form of a post-secondary credential upon graduation.

To be sure, this district has far to go. It scored low on some other indices from the TEA last year. But King’s belief in creating a culture of expectations has shown a district can start to “scale up” college-readiness.

Second, engage parents--Schools find parental engagement hard work with parents from any background. But it doubly can challenge them when parents don’t speak English or are new to America.

Still, it can be done.

In North Texas, the Concilio runs a program known as Parents Advocating Student Excellence. PASE operates in 25 schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The program, which serves largely Latino families, walks parents through a nine-week course that teaches them how to advocate for their children, emphasizes monitoring of a child’s work and instructs them in ways to raise expectations.

PASE’s results are impressive. The Concilio reports that 90 percent of students whose families participate in PASE graduate from high school. Seventy-eight percent of those same students attend some form of college after high school. 

This is just one example of an effective family engagement program. The Harvard Family Research Project spotlights other programs that work, such as Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors. 

EdSource reports in this link how the initiative has worked effectively in California. According to the University of California at Berkeley, Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors has made a difference in helping Hispanic families prepare their young children for the first year of school.

Third, focus on acquiring English--You can walk in any number of schools in a district with a sizable immigrant population and find teachers trying to get students from Mexico to Russia to Thailand up to speed in English. This is not easy work either, especially when you consider the population of students in states like Texas and California whose native language is not English. But acquiring English is the foundation for all other student achievement.

University of Texas at Austin professor Sharon Vaughn has done considerable research into the best ways for schools to help English language learners acquire a language that is not their own. In this interview on the Bush Institute blog, Vaughn, a Bush Institute fellow and executive director of the Meadows Center for Preventing Risk, explains the strategies her research shows to be most effective. 

Here’s one example: Focus on building up vocabulary and concept knowledge, including through academic and conversational language. Academic language matters especially since some concepts are not grasped through mere popular language. (Street talk does not always help you understand, say, math problems.)

Fourth, create a welcoming atmosphere for immigrants—The Dallas Independent School District operates an office for immigrant students and families only a few blocks from the Bush Institute. The Margaret and Gilbert Herrera Intake Center helps students who have never attended school in the United States.

The district directs families to the center, where staff members help them in several ways. They register them in the district and provide relevant supplies. They assess the student’s English proficiency and use that knowledge to place a student in the right English acquisition program at a campus. They also have staff to work with students and teachers throughout the year in acquiring English.

This office had been closed for a while, but DISD smartly reopened it last summer. I toured it then and families were streaming in to figure out where and what they should do next. 

Since then, the office has registered about 1,500 students from around the world. Amanda Clymer, the center’s supervisor, says that refugee organizations have alerted her to the fact that DISD should expect an influx of refugees between now and September.

Fortunately, other districts operate intake centers, too. These are sensible, compassionate ways to start integrating immigrant students into a school district and the larger culture.

Their personal mobility certainly depends upon moving into the American mainstream. And our economy depends upon them as well. The American narrative will increasingly be about how well schools succeed in assimilating immigrant students.

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