Articles in the Immigrants category

Common Core poses opportunities, challenges for English Language Learners

Imagine you’re a student being asked to demonstrate a level of knowledge and critical thinking never before demanded of the vast majority of students in the United States. That is what assessments for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative are asking — or will soon ask — students to do in at least 46 states and the District of Columbia.

Now imagine you’re being asked to demonstrate this high level of learning and cognitive ability in a language different from the one you grew up with at home.  If you were, say, a native English speaker and were asked to do this in Europe or Latin America, would your high school French or Spanish suffice?

That’s a little what the growing population English language learners in this country is being ask to do.  And whether these students succeed or not is critical to our nation’s future.

“English language learners represent the future majority of our student population,” said Rose Aronson, executive director of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.  (TESOL).  “So whether you come from a district where English language learners are already in large numbers, or from a district where their numbers are growing rapidly, you are directly affected.”

Aronson and Patte Barth, director of NBA’s Center for Public Education, spoke last week at a webinar, now archived, called The Common Core State Standards and English Language Learners: Challenges and Opportunities for Academic Success, which was sponsored by NSBA’s National Hispanic Caucus of School Board Members.

On the “opportunities” side, the CCSS sets the expectation that all students — including English Language Learners — will meet rigorous performance standards. And, because of this, Aronson said, “it has the potential to raise academic achievement of ELLs and close the achievement gap.”

In addition, “CCSS and NGSS [the Next Generation Science Standards] give us an opportunity to reassess our assumptions, instructional approaches, and polices related to the education of ELLs” and to strengthen the role of teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL).

Among the biggest challenges is ensuring that ELLs “acquire and use the academic language necessary to access the rigorous content demanded by the CCSS,” Aronson said. And there is the challenge of ensuring that all teachers are prepared to teach in the academic language that CCSS requires.

School boards have a big role to play regarding CCSS, Barth said. They can help all students succeed in this initiative by setting clear and high expectations, creating the conditions for success, holding the system accountable, creating the public will to success, and learning as a board team about CCSS and what it requires.

Lawrence Hardy|January 14th, 2014|Categories: 21st Century Skills, Assessment, Center for Public Education, Common Core State Standards, Curriculum, Diversity, Immigrants, Student Achievement, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , |

Educators must engage minority male students, CUBE speaker says

When urban school leaders ask themselves why young men of color are not doing well in their schools, they may be asking the wrong question.

The real question may be why school leaders—on their watch— are allowing so many of these students to struggle in their schools.

That was the provocative beginning of the two-hour opening session of the 45th annual conference of the Council of Urban Board of Education (CUBE), which opened Thursday in Atlanta.

As she began talking of the role of school leaders in helping these students, speaker Sonya Gunnings–Moton, an assistant dean at Michigan State University’s College of Education, hammered home a series of damning facts regarding the school experience of many African-American and Latino students.

Academic performance is lower on average for minority male students compared to their white peers, she said. These students are more likely to end up suspended or expelled, assigned to a special education program, or enrolled in an under-resourced school.

They also are less likely to be enrolled in gifted and talented programs.

This reality is disturbing enough to fuel action, Gunnings-Moton said. But, in her mind, she added, there was a more-compelling reason for her audience to return home from the conference and address the issue.

“It’s happening under our watch … this is not a history lesson,” she argued. “These are our realities today—the realities with our children.”

“One of the things I want you to be very clear about … we are responsible. This is our responsibility.”

So where to begin? Start with the research that shows that many minority male students don’t drop out of school because of poor academics, as is commonly believed, Gunnings -Moton said.

According to research, “what large populations of [these students] really did not believe, did not internalize, was the belief that going to school and being educated was going to make a difference in the outcome of their lives,” she told urban school leaders

Society, she added, has sent these students a consistent message that they will not succeed in school—and they have responded by deciding there is no need to make the attempt.

“Now that has profound implications around what we may need to think about … what it means to engage African-American males in education.”

To address this reality, urban school leaders need to go beyond the focus on instructional and management issues that has been the centerpiece of school reform efforts for the past decade, she said. Now it’s time for educators to focus on the very real social and emotional needs of young urban male students.

Efforts are needed to engage young male students in school, convince them they can succeed academically, and provide more supports to help them with the very real emotional and social issues that these students must address in a poor urban community.

Winning support to put scarce resources into such an effort can be a challenge, Gunnings-Moton agreed, but she said school leaders can argue that such efforts serve the needs of all students—and shouldn’t be looked at as an intervention solely for minority male students.

“You have a tremendous amount of data that all students who receive socio-emotional support and prevention services achieve better academically, regardless of race or socioeconomic status,” she said. “It makes sense for all students.”

Del Stover|October 5th, 2012|Categories: Governance, High Schools, Immigrants, Policy Formation, School Reform, Student Achievement, Student Engagement|Tags: , , , |

Federal court overrules ID checks on immigrant students

A three-judge panel of 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down a portion of Alabama’s strict immigration law that required public schools to check the legal status of students.

In a friend-of-the-court brief late last year, NSBA, the National Education Association, and the Alabama Education Association said the law was trying to use “fear and intimidation to drive undocumented immigrants from the state.”

The law had put public schools in a difficult position –on one hand, required by federal law to serve all children in the state regardless of their immigration status; on the other, being thrust to the front lines of a highly partisan battle over illegal immigration.

NSBA released a guide for educators last year, “Legal Issues for School Districts Related to the Education of Undocumented Children,” that discusses legal questions related to undocumented students that are commonly asked by school officials.

The main federal law is 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe held that undocumented students have a constitutional right to attend public elementary and secondary school for free, although there are other conflicted lower court rulings and many issues that the Plyler decision did not address, according to the guide.

Nevertheless, “The law of the land still requires that schools provide an education for undocumented students,” said NSBA’s General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón, Jr.

Numerous states have debated the fates of undocumented students in recent years, and the issue has reemerged with the Obama administration’s recent announcement that they will defer the deportations of thousands of young adults who came to the United States as children.

Read a legal analysis of the decision in Legal Clips.








Lawrence Hardy|August 22nd, 2012|Categories: Board governance, Council of School Attorneys, Diversity, Immigrants, School Law|Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Thirty years after Plyler, immigrant students still face obstacles

If you want to see how the nation’s views on undocumented immigrants have hardened in recent years, you don’t have to read the majority opinion in Plyler vs. Doe, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that said public schools must educate all children regardless of their immigration status.

 Just read the dissent.

 “Were it our business to set the Nation’s social policy,” dissenting Chief Justice Warren Burger began, “I would agree without hesitation that it is senseless for an enlightened society to deprive any children — including illegal aliens — of an elementary education.” 

Burger goes on to say, however, that whatever “folly” may have existed by the State of Texas’ decision to refuse to educate undocumented children, that decision was not unconstitutional. Such sentiments are a far cry from the prevailing view in the 2011 Alabama House Bill 56, part of which requires school districts to report the number of undocumented children in their schools, said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Saenz was one of six speakers at a Washington forum Monday titled Plyler v. Doe at 30 years: Keeping Public Schools Open to All of America’s Children. He said he wants people to read both Plyler’s majority opinion and the dissent to get a sense of the values expressed at the time. Also speaking at the event, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, was Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, the U.S. Justice Department’s chief civil rights enforcement officer, who was a keynote speaker the Council of School Attorneys (COSA) School Law Seminar in Boston.

Before Plyler could take effect, the justice department, joined by civil rights and religious groups, succeeded in securing a temporary court injunction on the part of the law that concerns school reports on students’ immigration status. But by then, Perez said, the damage had been done. Hispanic students were missing school and dropping out.

“We must never lose sight of the fact that this is about real people with real dreams,” Perez said.

That fact was underscored by William Lawrence, principal of Foley Elementary School in Foley, Ala. Soon after word of the new law reached Hispanic families, there was tremendous fear in the community that they would be targeted.

“The scene at the school was chaos,” Lawrence said. “There was crying and wailing” both from the Latino students and their non-Latino friends. Within weeks, 64 students would be withdrawn.

Ironically, 96 percent of the Hispanic students at Foley Elementary were born in the United States, Lawrence said. 

“It became clear to me that these children — American-born, U.S. citizens — were facing the brunt of the law,” said Lawrence, “a lifelong conservative Republican” who was nonetheless distraught over the measure that Alabama’s Republican majority pushed through the state legislature. 

If Lawrence’s political affiliation was ironic, there was irony in the actions of the Obama administration as well. Laura W. Murphy, the event’s moderator and director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, praised Perez and Russlynn Ali, the U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for civil rights, for their work on behalf of immigrants’ rights. But she said that if an official from the Department of Homeland Security had addressed the group, the reception would have been much different.

Last October, the Obama administration reported nearly 397,000 people were deported over the past 12 months, the third straight year of record deportations. Although the administration has initiated reviews of more than 410,000 deportation cases over the past seven months, fewer than 2 percent have been closed, leaving immigrant rights groups frustrated, according to the New York Times.

Perez’s office and the Department of Education have taken a much different course, investigating cases in states such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Alabama, where immigrant students have encountered roadblocks to school registration. In most instances, Perez said, school districts have been helpful.

“When we work with school districts, we explain the dos and don’ts,” Perez said. “They’ve been very receptive, because teachers want to work with kids.”

Lawrence Hardy|June 12th, 2012|Categories: American School Board Journal, Assessment, Council of School Attorneys, Diversity, Immigrants, School Board News, School Law|Tags: , , , |

The week in blogs

Beware the blog that begins, “If you want my opinion….” because chances are you’re going to get it, whether you want to our not.

So, as I was saying, if you want my opinion (promise I’ll keep this short) on the whole Newt-Gingrich-wants-poor-kids-to-work-as-school-janitors thing, it’s not the idea itself that bothers me, it’s the attitudes that seem to support it.

That is, I could imagine a small charter-type school in a disadvantaged neighborhood where the students were charged with taking care of the building as  part of a team-building, esprit-de-corps type activity.

But to suggest, as the Republican presidential candidate did, that poor children as a group lack any kind of working role models — well, that to me is a bit much. Gingrich obviously hasn’t spent much time in a diverse American high school with lots of poor immigrants, where oftentimes the problem isn’t students not working, but working so much outside of school to help support stressed families that they have precious little chance of passing their courses.

For the record, here’s some of what Gingrich said, according to the New York Times’ Politics blog, which, in turn, quoted Politico:

You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, 14, 16 years of age, fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”

Among the many who criticized the candidate was Charles Blow, of the Times, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“Who in their right mind would lay off janitors and replace them with disadvantaged children — who should be in school, and not cleaning schools,” Weingarten said. “And who would start backtracking on laws designed to halt the exploitation of children?”

Others, including Peter Meyer of the Fordham Foundation, said Gingrich was on the right track.

“It was a bit odd to to see Charles Blow (of the New York Times) take out after Newt Gingrich for saying that ‘really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works,’’’ Meyer said. “I had just returned from an inner city school where teachers and administrators and parents were saying the same things as Gingrich.  In fact, I’ve been hearing these complaints from teachers – and business leaders – for years.  Teaching children the ‘habits of working’ is a growing part of the school reform movement.”

Yes, there was other news this week. For starters, check out Joann Jacobs’s discussion of how schools’ emphasis on reading and math tests could be crowding out other subjects.

Lawrence Hardy|December 10th, 2011|Categories: Curriculum, Immigrants, School Board News, Urban Schools, Week in Blogs|Tags: , |

NA webinar: Population shifts dramatically impact schools

In a recent webinar for National Affiliates, a leading researcher showed how school districts can use the 2010 U.S. Census data to project enrollment trends in their areas.

Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics for the office of employment and training for the Kentucky Workforce Development Cabinet, showed how the data could be used to identify the ages of different areas and how those demographics could impact school enrollments.

Nationally, the data showed an uptick in the nation’s population in the past decade, particularly among Hispanic and Asian residents, but regional differences varied widely.

For instance, when looking at population trends through a map of the United States, Michigan was the only state to lose population from 2000 to 2010. Many southern and southwestern states saw population increases of 5 to 15 percent or more.

But when the data was analyzed by looking at counties, it was clear that many areas were losing residents, even in the states with increasing populations. Many of those areas were rural.

Crouch used demographic data to show how some counties have younger populations—for instance, the Seattle area has had a boom in residents age 25 to 34 who haven’t yet had children. In other areas, there are growing numbers of young workers who are having children, and race and ethnicity made a big difference in the number of children getting ready to start school.

“All the growth that’s really going on in this country is the Hispanic population,” Crouch noted. Many Hispanics tend to have larger families; and while the Asian population is also increasing at significant rates, Asians tend to have fewer children, he said.

The Asian population, for instance, tends to be more concentrated in areas on East and West Coast, while the Hispanic population is more widespread. And while there was still a great concentration of Hispanics in California and the Southwest, some are now moving into other regions, particularly the South.

In addition, more children are being identified as being of two or more races, he added. Demographic data showed that the vast majority of residents identified as two or more races was concentrated in young children and teenagers categories.

The webinar will be archived for National Affiliates at Crouch will also be presenting at NSBA’s 72nd Annual Conference, held April 21 to 23, 2012, in Boston.

A searchable analysis of the county-by-county Census data is available at the New York Times website.


Joetta Sack-Min|August 5th, 2011|Categories: Immigrants, Rural Schools, School Board News|Tags: , |

Education headlines: Illegal immigrant students face uncertain futures

After the Dream Act failed to pass both chambers of Congress last year, an estimated 1.2 million illegal immigrant students are left in “legal twilight” about their opportunity to attend colleges with the future of the bill in limbo, the New York Times reports. The Washington Post also reports on JROTC cadets who are barred from joining the military after high school because of their immigration status… In a related, nationally watched story, CNN reports that a top-ranked Miami high school basketball team has had to forfeit all its games this year because a star player was ruled ineligible after school officials did not submit the necessary papers proving his legal immigration status to the Florida High School Athletic Association… And Education Week reports that the federal government expects more schools to request waivers that would exempt them from a “hold harmless” requirement on special education funding, in order to free up more funds as state budgets grow even tighter.

Joetta Sack-Min|February 10th, 2011|Categories: Announcements, Immigrants, School Board News|

ELL research can guide district policy

Let’s say your school board is looking for the best way to educate English language learners (ELLs)—and some in your community insist that English-only instruction is the way to go. How do you respond?

A good start would be the Center for Public Education (CPE), a “one-stop resource for objective, understandable research and data on key education issues.”

That was the message that CPE Director Patte Barth gave attendees of Saturday’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) Issues Forum at NSBA’s Leadership Conference.

For a school board wrestling with the issue of ELL instruction, a little help—in the form of easy-to-read research—could be most welcome, she said.

“This is one of the most controversial issues out there,” Barth said. “There are a lot of emotions attached to teaching second languages. It’s very political. People have some very strong feelings about this.”

Those feelings aren’t always supported by research, she added. One important research finding listed on the CPE website is that it takes four to seven years on average for ELL students to become proficient in English to a degree that allows students to succeed academically.

“What confused the issue is people can pick up [conversational] English,” Barth continued. “Their oral proficiency makes them appear capable of succeeding in the classroom.”

But that’s not so. Tapping into CPE resources, she said, school boards can present evidence that shows elementary-aged students enrolled in English-only classrooms score, on average at the 12th percentile in reading tests by the time they reach high school.

Young students enrolled in bilingual programs—where they are taught part of the time in their native language—reach high school reading at the 45th percentile.

In addition to finding a clear analysis of education research, Barth said, school leaders also can tap into CPE DataFirst website, a collection of resources designed to guide policymakers to the questions they need to ask on various issues—and to point them to the data that will answer those questions.

To emphasize the value of CPE, she proposed another scenario—one in which the superintendent suggests a school board adopt an incentive plan to lure better teachers to low-performing schools.

A visit to the CPE website, Barth said, would provide school board members with some of the steps that research suggests is necessary in developing a successful incentive plan. Those steps include examining how teachers are distributed in the district, tapping into best practices on teacher recruitment and retention, and involving teachers in the planning process.

For more information, visit the CPE website:

Del Stover|February 5th, 2011|Categories: Immigrants, Leadership Conference 2011, School Board News, School Boards, Student Achievement, Urban Schools|

ASBJ chronicles Broad winner Gwinnett County’s efforts to educate immigrants

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has announced the Gwinnett County, Ga., school district as the winner of the 2010 Broad Prize, which includes $1 million for student scholarships.

“Gwinnett County has demonstrated that an unwavering focus across a school system – by every member of the district and the community – can lead to steady student improvement and achievement,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at the announcement on Oct. 19. “Districts across the country should look to Gwinnett County as an example of what is possible when adults put their interests aside and focus on students.”

The Broad Foundation will award $250,000 for scholarships to each of the four other finalists—Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina; Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland; and the Socorro Independent School District and the Ysleta Independent School District, both in Texas.

According to the Broad Foundation, ore than half of Gwinnett’s students are African-American or Hispanic, and half are eligible for subsidized lunches.

American School Board Journal wrote about Gwinnett County’s efforts to educate its rapidly growing and diverse population of immigrant students in its Sept. 2008 Special Report on Immigration and Diversity. The story is featured below:

A Race Against Time

With well-organized stacks of student files and forms, Judy Schilling’s office bears the telltale signs of a high school counselor. A veteran in guiding students through transcripts, Schilling volunteered for one of Norcross High School’s most daunting assignments: navigating its diverse and growing population of English language learners (ELLs) toward graduation. Her job entails a sense of urgency that she deftly yet calmly describes as “a race against time.”

Time is a critical element for Norcross’ immigrant students to learn English, assimilate to a new culture, catch up with class work, and pass the numerous content exams required by both Georgia and the Gwinnett County school district to receive a diploma. Schilling must help these students overcome the major disadvantage of starting school at the secondary level—research clearly shows the earlier, the better—within the confines of a suburban district struggling to manage its growth.

With 2,800 students and a labyrinth of hallways and classrooms, Norcross High could be described as a microcosm of the immigration trend that’s swept Gwinnett County and the rest of the U.S. in the past two decades. The school’s student population, which was predominantly white in the early 1990s, has no racial majority; about 30 percent each are of white, black, and Hispanic origin and 10 percent are Asian. Last year, 423 Norcross students were classified as ELLs.

Norcross has won national praise for its International Baccalaureate program and other rigorous classes, and Principal Jonathan Patterson strives to increase the staff’s expectations for ELL students and educate them in the most challenging environments. Still, only 39 percent of Norcross’ ELL students graduate in four years, a figure that he calls “pretty terrible.”

Even within the success stories, some students are undocumented and can’t find legal employment, and many more will be unable to afford higher education, even if they are legal residents who qualify for in-state tuition and Georgia’s HOPE scholarship. One of Schilling’s dreaded tasks is telling students that, despite their hard work and perseverance, she can’t change their fate.

“We see talent and potential every day, and it saddens me to think that ends at high school,” Schilling says.

Dealing with enormous growth

In the South, Georgia has seen much larger numbers of new immigrants than most other states. And while Atlanta historically is considered a diverse city, it’s mainly in the sense of black and white. As the primary commercial hub of the Southeast, it has grown exponentially in recent decades, and that prosperity as well as a nearby refugee relocation center attracted newcomers from all points of the world.

The city’s growth has stretched its suburban boundaries farther and farther, recently making Gwinnett County one of the nation’s fastest growing areas and a mecca for immigrant groups. Hispanics were wooed by an abundance of construction jobs, Koreans bought homes in luxurious subdivisions, and Eastern Europeans opened restaurants and grocery stores. As the city’s traditional black-and-white segregation eased, African-American families also settled into Gwinnett’s suburban lifestyle.

The school district was largely unprepared for the new arrivals, some observers say. Gwinnett is criticized for building large, comprehensive high schools for efficiency, and the size and boundaries of Norcross have hindered its efforts to engage immigrant students and their parents. And staff members say local politics, which recently turned more hostile to immigrants, significantly impact the school’s actions.

Politics aside, the increase in new arrivals demands that schools provide an adequate education, or Southern states ultimately will face severe economic consequences, says Joseph Marks, the Southern Regional Education Board’s director of education data services.

“The groups that are growing the fastest are the groups where students historically have been less prepared, and either don’t attend college or don’t complete college,” he says. “The education system is going to have to do a lot better at preparing and encouraging these populations to do much better, or the educational attainment of the workforce would become stagnant, and that’s a historically unprecedented stall.”

Gwinnett saw its numbers of limited-English-proficient students jump from 575 in the 1990-91 school year to 19,409 in 2006-07, and the more recent arrivals often have a more basic education background, says Tricia Kennedy, Gwinnett’s assistant superintendent for instruction and curriculum.

“We have an increasing number of students coming to us as high school students who have gaps in their education,” she says. “We’re having to provide a lot of scaffolding to build in those gaps in learning.”

Skills in native language critical

By far the best indicator of whether new immigrants will succeed in high school is proficiency in reading, writing, and math in their native language, teachers and researchers agree.

“If they’re literate, we move much more quickly,” says Jeannette Butler, an ELL teacher at Norcross. “A lot of these kids work very hard and can make it to a higher-level curriculum.”

That may still take years. Butler estimates that a midlevel student, with average intelligence and moderate literacy in their home language, will be in ELL classes about seven years. Research shows it takes five to seven years to gain competency in English.

Nevertheless, Georgia requires high school students to take the district’s graduation exams after they have been enrolled for only one year, beginning in 10th grade. Norcross’ ELL students struggle to pass any of the seven required subjects, particularly the writing exam. Students may retake any failed exam as often as the tests are offered, but teachers say many become discouraged and may drop out after repeated failures.

Determining whether a student fails because of a lack of content knowledge or language difficulties is yet another challenge. Nationally, ELLs struggle to pass the growing number of exit exams required by states or districts. A 2005 survey of six states for the Center for Education Policy showed that the percentages of ELL students who passed graduation exams on the first try were significantly lower than all other subgroups, including students living in poverty.

The educational experiences of Gwinnett’s new immigrant students vary, from a 15-year-old Guatemalan boy who had left school in second grade and spoke only a local dialect to Hoang Nguyen, who came from Vietnam as a ninth-grader with credits for calculus and physics classes.

Speaking in newly acquired English, Nguyen says U.S. schools are easy for him, but many classmates are struggling or disengaged.

“Not all ESOL kids have the motivation to graduate, or they are scared or don’t have the courage to take on the classes,” says Nguyen, who planned to study computer science at Georgia State University this fall. “I go up to my friends and say, ‘Are you going to graduate?’ They say,

‘Maybe,’ so I say, ‘Why?’ And they say, ‘Oh, it’s so hard, and I have to pass the tests.’”

Center for newcomers

Given the needs and complexities of educating immigrant students, the district opened its International Newcomer Center (INC) to decipher and translate foreign transcripts and find appropriate placements. The center, which recently extended its hours to meet increasing demand, employs translators, outreach specialists, and graduation coaches who sort through the new students’ academic transcripts and test for content knowledge and English acquisition. Now located in an administrative building, the center welcomes families with multilingual DVD programs that explain the district’s rules and expected behaviors, such as dress codes and policies for absences. Counselors then take families into private rooms for interviews and to review transcripts, and finally, the student takes subject-matter tests.

The center also works with refugee and family services centers to bring in translators for less-common languages.

INC director Victoria Webbert says placing a student is “an art, not a science,” and schools have discretion to change placements once a student acclimates. Often, she says, the staff tries to place students cautiously, as it’s more encouraging to be moved to a higher-level class than to be demoted.

Gwinnett has organized its ELL classes using a grid that factors in a student’s age, language acquisition, and content knowledge. The district also offers inclusive classes for students who have some English and significant content knowledge. The state requires all ELL classes to be taught in English, and most ELL teachers at Norcross do not speak a second language.

“You have to do a lot of rephrasing, and learn to say things in different ways,” says Norcross teacher Amy Crisp. Teachers in the ELL classes, which usually contain fewer than a dozen students, often communicate with gestures and pictures.

The school has tried numerous initiatives, some of which have been more successful than others, she says. An afterschool tutoring program faltered, but the teachers plan to give more intensive English and math instruction this year. The percentages of Norcross ESOL students passing the math and language arts components of the graduation exams increased slightly this year.

“There is hope,” Crisp says. “I believe things are working. It’s just the time factor that we’re up against.”

Unique needs and issues

After academics, Norcross must deal with the special needs of students who may not have come to the U.S. by choice and may be dealing with unique family and social issues.

Many students are caught between two cultures, wanting to assimilate to U.S. norms but feeling pressured to uphold their native culture and language. Some work to help their families pay bills or send money to relatives, and some serve as interpreters for their families, an act that becomes stressful when dealing with complicated legal or financial matters.

Depression and emotional issues are common, but not always recognized or addressed, teachers and counselors say. Another ongoing challenge is recognizing cultural differences and making efforts to draw in newcomers. For instance, teachers are urged to include references to different cultures in their work, and in some cases reference a student’s family—saying, for instance, “Your family would be proud of you”—rather than individual praise.

Norcross students tend to gravitate toward cliques with the same cultural background. Some Hispanic students say they were pleased to find so many Spanish-speaking peers, but students with more unique backgrounds, such as Francious Aka, an Ivory Coast native who lived in Italy before arriving in Gwinnett, find it tougher to socialize.

Francisco Rivera, who moved to Georgia from Mexico when his father took a job selling farm equipment, says he’s made more friends because he speaks English. But he realized that could complicate relationships with his Hispanic friends and family members.

“I have a lot of American friends because I’m not afraid to speak English,” says Rivera, who plans to go to college or join the Air Force to become an engineer. “Some people from Mexico say I’m forgetting my heritage, but I’m in the United States.”

Gwinnett schools have encouraged immigrant students to share their experiences through extracurricular activities—one high school has a mariachi band, another has a Latino student group. But extracurricular activities at Norcross pose more challenges. Many immigrant students hold jobs after school, and school buses are the only transportation option for most others because the suburban areas are so sprawling. Several after-school activities, including a girls’ club that encouraged self-esteem and discouraged pregnancy, disbanded because of low participation.

Efforts to engage parents through evening dinners and activities also have seen low turnout. Patterson, Norcross’ principal, is particularly concerned that, without an adequate education, too many of his students will continue a cycle of poverty.

“We can see that motivation is the key to everything, and that is the thing that is the most difficult to calculate,” he says.

Federal law prohibits schools from questioning citizenship status, but the staff at Norcross say immigrant students often let them know if they are undocumented. For instance, the counselors might recruit top students for plum work-study assignments but find that some don’t have Social Security numbers.

“It’s frustrating,” Patterson says. “Here we don’t ask; we just hear of situations where a kid is showing motivation and determination and effort to do well, and push themselves academically, but then they look at the economics of getting a higher education degree.”

Curbing the dropout rate

Several Southern states have turned hostile to illegal immigrants, adding to the national debate on whether undocumented students who have attended U.S. secondary schools should pay in-state tuition rates for higher education institutions.

The 1996 welfare reform law prohibited in-state rates, but some states sidestepped that requirement. Last year, Georgia’s legislature shot down a practice by the state’s Board of Regents and mandated undocumented students must pay out-of-state tuition.

In June, South Carolina adopted one of the most stringent measures, the Illegal Immigration Reform Act. One section of the law deems undocumented students ineligible to attend any public higher education institution in South Carolina and denies them scholarships, financial aid, and grants. And the North Carolina legislature is considering a measure that would bar undocumented students from attending its public community colleges.

The percentage of recent immigrants who drop out, though, is much higher than native-born students or students who arrived in the early elementary grades. Teen pregnancy is contributing to Norcross’ ELL dropout rate, and other dropouts were lured by jobs.

“Once you start making money, living a hair better, it’s hard to give that up,” Patterson notes.

Senior Liliana Gomez could be considered an “at-risk” student. Outside school, she works about 40 hours a week, including every weekend, at a clothing store. She came to Georgia at the request of her mother, who left her with her father after moving to the U.S. with a new husband.

In Mexico, Gomez enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle on her father’s farm. Gomez says she’s determined to graduate despite her academic struggles and personal hardships. She’s also motivated to learn English because, “I want to understand everything.”

People stereotype Mexicans as poor, she says, at the same time admitting her family is struggling. She may return to Mexico if her prospects do not improve.

“I really want to go to college, but I can’t. It’s too much money,” says Gomez, who hopes to graduate in 2009.

Schilling takes her hand. “Things change,” she says. “We have to hope.”

Afterward, Schilling admits there is little she can do for the many students in Gomez’s situation. “Sometimes we get hung up on statistics, but when you meet these people, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Joetta Sack-Min|October 19th, 2010|Categories: Announcements, Immigrants, School Board News, Urban Schools|
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