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Putting Education ‘First And Foremost’: Immigration And Integration In U.S. Public Schools

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Over recent years, researchers have found that changing demographics, the rise in single-parent families, and economic hardship have all contributed to the decline in test scores in elementary and high school education. In a Winter 2015 article from International Migration Review, it was found that average test scores in both reading and math for first- and second-generation youth declined significantly from 1990 to 2002 within the U.S. public school system. In that time, however, children from immigrant families grew from 13 to 20 percent, with the entire immigrant population having grown by 353 percent since 1970 and over 61 million immigrants and their young children now living in the United States.

Unfortunately, with this rising level of immigration, there has also been an increased amount of segregation in schools, as the mass influx of new students seems to have further intensified an age-old American communal problem. Studies warn that “in an era of both record high immigration flows and school re-segregation levels, there is significant concern that schools will be able to successfully foster the academic adaptation of immigrant children. Creating a triple disadvantage for many children of immigrants, U.S. schools have re-segregated across racial/ethnic, linguistic, and economic divisions.”

As Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee explain in a 2005 paper for Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, “Immigration has transformed American schools as the number of black students grew slowly, the number of Latinos and Asian students exploded, and white enrollment continuously declined as a proportion of the total.” Accompanying this transformation is “a continuous pattern of deepening segregation for black and Latino students now since the 1980s.”

Still, despite the harmful effects of this modern wave of segregation, there continues to be a longstanding refusal to discuss limits on immigration, especially in the political sphere, with lawmakers choosing not to acknowledge ever-rising immigration levels and how it has come to affect the country as a whole. Various members of the academic field, in addition, do not seem to hesitate detailing the transformative nature of federal immigration policy — oftentimes in dire and cataclysmic tones — but they never go about recommending actual changes in regulations. Instead they suggest heavy-handed state intervention programs to cope with the problems or offer vague policy prescriptions intended to mitigate minor impacts, which in the end, become only temporary band-aids to a serious ongoing problem.

As immigration continues to re-surge as a hot national topic, public schools have chosen to take it upon themselves to resolve the long withstanding issue in a whole other manner– one that does not include debates about building walls or deporting immigrants.

Schools all across the nation are opening their doors, wanting to take responsibility in helping tens of thousands of children find their footing in the “Land of Opportunity.” Many of the new arrivals don’t speak much English and are behind academically, often times, having arrived with numerous scars, having fled desperate poverty or violence (or both) from their native lands. Most have endured difficult journeys, sometimes even leaving their families behind or rejoining their parents in the United States only after years of separation. And though already strapped for resources, U.S. schools are trying their best to accommodate these young students by providing special services, including English-language instruction and mental-health care.

“The United States is founded on human rights,” says Sandra Jimenez to the Washington Post. She is the principal of High Point High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a Washington suburb where the immigrant population has grown rapidly. “The only reason these people are here is because they are desperate. These people are coming to survive.”

Within the article, a local activist also explains that it is “critical for schools to provide a holistic, comprehensive support system” for these newcomers, especially since federal education data shows that there are currently a total of 630,000 immigrant students nationwide. In other words, more than one of every five public school students in the U.S. is from an immigrant household and nearly one of every five school-age children speaks a foreign language at home, according to Census data. The numbers are substantially higher in immigrant-rich states such as California, where 44 percent of all school-age children speak a foreign language. This, often times, is a fact that alters the ‘mission’ of many schools.

As the number of public schools tasked with the responsibility of accommodating a growing influx of students from immigrant families grows, more and more institutions such as Valley High School in Santa Ana, California are devoting significant resources to social services and making efforts that go way beyond basic English-language acquisition to include family workshops, regular counseling sessions where newcomers can share their experiences with peers, as well as access to high-end technological resources to further train, support, and “help newcomers move on to the mainstream as quickly as possible,” says Rob Walshe, an ELD (English Language Development) program teacher at the Southern California-based high school.

Walshe is an active member of the school’s “Newcomers Academy,” a special initiative funded by the Santa Ana Unified School District back in 2012 to “provide an environment with maximum resources” with “teachers that [were] interested in developing skills and their own instructional strategies to work with students like these,” Walshe says.

The ‘academy,’ according to Walshe, began as a “magnet model” to serve the entire district, and consists of mainly ninth and tenth graders from Latin America, Central America, and even countries as far as Afghanistan. It was established with the use of computers, providing Chrome Book laptops to all participating students, as well as language software such as Rosetta Stone, which “helps especially towards the beginning of the program because they can access it not only at school but at home […] There are a lot of folks here with a really big heart for newcomer students… it’s a good fit,” he says.

Principal David Richey agrees. He adds that because of the structure of the program, Valley High School was only able to serve a number of students within the area. “When we were hitting capacity and getting classes that were too large, we went to the district to find a way to expand. Our recommendation was to add a school, which is why Century High School opened up its ‘Welcome Academy’ this year,” Richey says. “I think as long as we are receiving students the district will continue to serve those students as best they can.”

There are no doubt numerous benefits to integration within schools as well as in local communities. In a recent Huffington Post article titled, “Breaking Down the Walls of the Classroom,” Marisel Moreno, an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame, emphasizes that “experience and human interaction are crucial both to learning and to producing social change.” In academia, however, Moreno says many lose “sight of this truth. It is easy to lose ourselves in our own research and be obsessed with our publication records, while silently ignoring the potential that we hold as academics to foment change by connecting our research and/or teaching to the world around us.”

“My own experiences have shown that bringing students into the community through a sort of “mini-immersion” experience within the context of rigorous academic coursework, often produces deeper learning outcomes,” Moreno continues, which is why she, like other individuals all across the country—from High Point High School in Maryland to Valley High School in California—are all turning their “attention to the classroom as a potential site of civic and social transformation.”

Needless to say, the public school arena, especially in recent years, has become a stellar example of national strength within local communities. It has become willing to break the mold of the traditional four-wall classroom setting—a vital and necessary step towards fostering positive growth in all of America’s youth, regardless of their ethnic background.

When first-and-second-generation students attend more integrated schools, they develop friendships and networks that encourage them to succeed and become part of the American national identity. It’s time we as a country face the realities– because it just might, as Margery Turner of the Urban Institute notes, clear “a problem that is blocking upward mobility for children growing up today.”

“Speaking from a perspective of working with these students more closely in the classroom, I can tell you that they are acutely aware of the environment they are in– not only here at school, but the national atmosphere right now, and they’re really sensitive to that,” Walshe says. “Our job is to make sure that we are showing them support and that we are providing those avenues forward. That’s our job and that’s what we do—putting education first and foremost.”

Pamela Chan is a reporter for Generation Progress, covering immigration.

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