Schools need to have a protocol for educating and retaining immigrant students — documented and undocumented — and they must also engage in community outreach initiatives to build up trust among immigrant families, National Education Association (NEA) leaders and educators said during a panel on Friday at the organization’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.
At “The Challenges of Educating Immigrant Students” session, one of many that allowed educators to discuss key issues affecting public education, panelists highlighted the special needs of immigrant children seeking an education in American schools.
“These kids are bright and smart but they may lack the language skills to shine,” said Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based organization, Migration Policy Institute (MPI).
The nonprofit think tank explores the movement of people worldwide and brainstorms appropriate responses to the challenges and opportunities large-scale migration presents to communities around the globe.
During her presentation, Batalova said schools must align English Language Learner (ELL) and mainstream curricula, use native language instruction and testing policies and recruit and retain teachers to improve the quality of English instruction services for immigrant children.
Currently, one in eight U.S. residents are immigrants and one-third of them are unauthorized, according to a 2003 Urban Institute estimate.
Nevada, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana and several southern states, including Georgia, were among the states with more than a 200 percent growth in ELL students from 1995-2005.
Half of the ELL students in the nation attend school in one of America’s 10 largest school districts, including New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Houston and San Diego. In these school districts, many students tend to be in classrooms with a high teacher-student ratio and with high poverty levels, Batalova said.
She added that about 65,000 undocumented children graduate from American high schools each year.
There are several special challenges facing immigrant students, Batalova and other speakers said. Many struggle to master a new language while also learning subject-area content. Also, their parents often lack the language skills to help their children and many are unfamiliar with their children’s learning environment.
Matthew Finucane, a member of the NEA Minority Community Outreach initiative, which was established to close the achievement gap among minority students, added that schools, aside from re-evaluating their curriculum and education practices, must also be careful to not perpetuate the stigma and stereotypes surrounding immigrant families.
The speakers also said that because of the broken immigration system, families are often separated, leaving children with little-to-no emotional and financial support.
He used his Japanese grandmother as an example. Because of paranoia following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, government officials in Pacific states forced over 120,000 Japanese residents, including his grandmother, from their homes and relocated them to isolated internment camps, he said.
Even after 31 years of living in the United States, Finucane’s grandmother was asked to register with the government and was eventually uprooted from her home. Finucane went on to say that similar hatred and stigma surrounding immigrants often make it hard for immigrant children to feel comfortable and succeed in school.
“It’s the kind of hysteria that put my grandmother into a camp,” he said.
Focusing on the challenges ELL students face, Finucane said immigrant students often take longer to graduate or don’t graduate at all. For example, in New York City, 26 percent of the ELL high school students graduated on time compared to the 61 percent of English proficient students.
Joe Tijerina, associate director of the NEA’s National Membership Strategy, added that many of the parents don’t even have a grasp of their own native language, adding another layer of complexity for helping immigrant children succeed in school.
“We have to dig deeper and ask, ‘What does the child know?’ and ‘What do their parents know?’” Tijerina said.
Immigrant students’ cultural backgrounds also inform what education level they wish to obtain, Tijerina said. In 2008, some families still believe that that teenagers should be starting families and not thinking about higher education, he said.
Finucane went on to note that tests required by The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) also hinder students because the act punishes schools that aren’t meeting testing standards. In turn, many of these schools want to remove students, who they feel are causing them to fail NCLB-related tests — many of them ELL students with poor language skills.
Finucane and other educators who attended the session lamented the decline in federal support of immigrant student education.
In 2002, the federal government granted $770 million in language acquisition grants to U.S. states and territories. According to U.S. Department of Education numbers, funds decreased by 13.1 percent in 2007, when the government granted states and territories $669 million instead.
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