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Invisible immigrants: one in five U.S. children is a child of an immigrant, but often immigrant student needs are overlooked. Open your eyes to their world--what affects their achievement and what your schools can do to ensure they get the education they desperately want and deserve. (Helping At-Risk Students).

Emma Violand-Sanchez knows a thing or two about the immigrant student experience. Arriving in the U.S. as a high school senior in the 1960's, she says, "was the hardest year of my life, educationally and emotionally." While her Bolivian education prepared her for learning, it didn't prepare her for the loss she felt in finding no familiar Spanish church, foods or celebrations here. As one of the few international students in her town, Violand-Sanchez felt she had a lot of support, though.

It's always nice to help the foreign student if you have one or two, but if you have hundreds it becomes overwhelming," she says of the current situation.

As the director of English for Speakers of Other Languages/High Intensity Language Training at Arlington Public Schools, Violand-Sanchez works to ensure the educational system serves students' needs. In Arlington, Virg., where citizens hail from 96 nations and represent about 80 different languages, 40 percent of students are second-language learners. But even in a district like this one where support programs have infiltrated the community, the challenge for schools is a constant.

An ever-growing number of districts across the U.S. are struggling to keep up with the influx of immigrant populations in their schools. In the past 30 years, the immigrant population has shifted from highly educated immigrants arriving at a slow pace to economic and political refugees, often undereducated, arriving in large numbers.

According to U.S. Census data, the number of immigrants and children of immigrants has tripled, from 6.3 percent in 1970 to nearly 20 percent in 1997. Foreign-born children make up 5.7 percent of the secondary school and 3.5 percent of the elementary school populations. Immigration experts are finding, however, that immigrant student needs as a whole are not being met. Many end up dropping out of school and leading lives of struggle.

By gaining insight into what makes immigrant students succeed or fail, districts can begin to implement programs that make the students proud to be here and confident of their abilities. And educators who make this commitment are seeing positive results not only for immigrant children but also for those who have come to know them.

Agents of Achievement

You might think that students at greatest risk academically are immigrant newcomers, but growing research suggests otherwise. Despite language difficulties and health issues, newcomers are less likely to show risk behaviors such as substance abuse than second-generation immigrants.

In addition, more established immigrants "are missing the optimism and appreciation toward education that newcomers have," says Carola Suarez-Orozco, author of Children of Immigration (Harvard University Press, 2001) and co-director, with her husband Marcelo, of the Harvard Immigration Project. The study's student adaptation project is tracking immigrant childrens' educational attitudes and adaptations over the course of five years.

Part of what shapes student experiences are family life and prior schooling. Of the children in 51 schools and seven districts who were part of the Harvard study, 85 percent faced family separation. Although there are dozens of types of separation, a common one for Central American children is being raised in the home country by grandparents as their parents immigrate to the U.S. It's often years before they reunite, and when they do the children have another transition to get through. All of this is "extremely stressful for kids," Suarez-Orozco says.

Cultural views of school also impact a newcomer's experience. In Latino cultures, teachers are deeply respected and parents assume teachers do the best for each child. Asian children, on the other hand, come from countries where even low-educated families understand the importance of what Suarez-Orozco calls the "game of academic success."

Another aspect of the home country affecting achievement is under-schooling. Some immigrant students aren't fully literate in their own language, much less in English. In the five-district Urban Institute study "Overlooked & Underserved," high school teachers emphasized that the amount of prior schooling is the single strongest predictor of academic success.

Co-researcher Jorge Ruiz-de-Valasco points out that these students arrive in the U.S. not knowing how to behave in a classroom, do homework or participate in a class discussion. They may come from countries where schooling ends at grade six and many drop out sooner to work. While one district in the Urban Institute study and the Center for Applied Linguistics are developing curricula for underserved children, materials are scarce. Ruiz-de-Valasco explains, "You can't go to a teacher's bookstore and find a curriculum for the underschooled."

Despite their past education experiences, most immigrant students arrive eager to do well and are appreciative of the educational opportunities here. When the Harvard project asked Mexican immigrants, second-generation Mexican students and non-immigrant whites at one school to describe their teachers, glowing attributes were given by 73 percent for the immigrants but only a small percentage of the whites. This positive attitude toward school is also reflected in high attendance and homework completion rates. As the children assimilate into American culture, however, motivation often drops, and behavior problems, such as eye rolling at the teacher and cutting class, become more prevalent.

Student Ambassadors

Socialization can also make or break the immigrant experience. Hope Elkins, clinical assistant professor of education and director of the student academic center at Indiana University, frequently works with at-risk students. "Nonnative speakers often feel socially marginalized in the classroom--and as we know, learning is a social process," she says. Teachers may pair newcomers with an informal "buddy" and incorporate their culture into lessons.

Alisal High School in Salinas, Calif., goes a step further. Overlooked & Underserved staff discovered that recent immigrants stuck with one another and were isolated from their peers. So they convened a panel of students to discuss inter-group relations and created a "student ambassador" program. Native students received training from faculty in cross-cultural communication and were paired with newcomer students.

A factor that both helps and hurts immigrants is that new arrivals of color tend to settle in predominantly minority neighborhoods. This affects the kind of English they learn, job networks and the quality of schools. However, cohesive immigrant communities can also benefit student achievement. Suarez-Orozco knows of at least one group of urban immigrant parents who pooled limited resources to hire a teacher for after-school English and math tutoring for students. This "phantom school" concept is common among Asian immigrants, she says.

As the first place where immigrant students experience American culture, school has the greatest impact on their achievement.

Kindred Connections

Because American school success often depends on active parent involvement, some districts open their schools to immigrant parents. Studies have shown that inactive parents may feel intimidated because of the language barrier. Beyond language skills, they need to understand the American educational system--what the school levels mean and how they compare to their home country.

The Arlington Education and Employment Program works at taking away these barriers. Parents can learn language skills related to personal identification of themselves, their families and their roles within different situations in their lives. Director Inaam Mansoor says the curriculum goes beyond parenting because "with adults you cannot just take a slice of their life." Besides parents, they are employees, community members and family members.

Classes, which cost $25 per session, are held in the evenings at neighborhood schools, where sitters are provided when possible; this helps eliminate three barriers to adult English learning: cost, location and child care. Topics include school notices and report cards, immunization, kindergarten registration, getting children to think about careers, school policies, field trip know-how and college. At "make it and take it" nights, parents and children have worked together on projects such as the "community coloring book," where parents researched libraries, health clinics and other community resources and their children created a coloring book to illustrate the information. Parents also learn how using the Web and e-mail can be an easy, non-intimidating way to stay in touch with schools.

Most immigrant parents (even well-educated ones) realize the importance of further education but don't know the steps needed to get their children there, says Suarez-Orozco. "It's one of the places that school districts and after-school and community centers can intervene." Schools can ask trusted people from the community to explain some of the common mistakes and that the road to college includes choosing challenging courses and taking standardized tests. College information session series can be offered frequently for parents with children of all ages. Violand-Sanchez says that schools tend to wrongly assume that "if you provide a brief orientation [on college], students will be able to do it on their own."

Besides being informative, sessions create an opportunity for parents, teachers and administrators to get to know each other. Just remember, connecting two different cultures is not an overnight effort. Elkins says, "There are going to be misunderstandings and miscommunications ... It is going to take years of consistent, regular outreach." However, parents will likely recognize the efforts and appreciate them.

Tools and Training

Educators and the general public alike tend to misunderstand immigrant abilities. Alberto Ochoa, chair of the Department for Policy Studies in Language and Cross-Cultural Education at San Diego State University, says educators often perceive students as having a language deficit and think English language skills are all they need. Elkins tells future teachers not to underestimate student potential because they may have an accent or low test scores. Violand-Sanchez adds, "We need to value their first language--to look at bilingualism as an asset."

Sometimes teachers don't understand the limitations that English deficiencies place on these parents. For example, says Mansoor, it "is a turn-off to teachers" when parents bring an older sibling to a teacher conference (for assistance). You'll also hear teachers say, `I sent a notice home and it never came back' or `I told them that you have to sit down and read to this child every day.'" Parents may even be illiterate in both English and their native language.

With just 2.5 percent of U.S. teachers who have English-language learners in class having special training to work with them, the future of all immigrant children is at risk. In response, formal pre-service teacher education programs are slowly cropping up in universities.

San Diego State University's required program covers methods of teaching social studies, science, reading and language arts with attention to culture for students just learning English. Student teaching is served in a classroom with a certified language development specialist. Special topics in the program include cultural diversity, assimilation, and the relationships between cultural diversity, educational equity, academic achievement and socioeconomic status.

Elkins says that reading literature on immigrants, attending conferences and talking to experts goes a long way. Professors can also address that "some of the principles for teaching native speakers can really be used to teach non-native speakers."

Current teachers need professional development training. "We work with teachers constantly," says Violand-Sanchez. Arlington provides courses in how to understand the cultural and linguistic needs of the students, as well as how to communicate with their families.

In the Urban Institute study, building communication among educators was crucial. Teachers organized cross-site and cross-grade planning teams to create a common path to learning in elementary, middle and high school. In addition, multi-departmental teams of regular subject teachers, language teachers, counselors and other staff met to discuss what immigrant students at a particular level should be learning in each class. "That team approach helped all teachers in the schools realize that they had a role to play in moving these kids along," says Ruiz-de-Velasco.

Teaming language and content teachers is radical because it challenges the way teachers see themselves professionally and the way they organize work and use their time, Ruiz-de-Velasco points out. He believes ESL should not be a separate program at the federal, state, district and school levels--thinking of these programs as part of overall school-wide reform ensures that immigrant students don't get overlooked.

Ochoa says developing a district's unique approach to serving the immigrants in that community sounds obvious. "But when it comes down to resources and staffing and programs, we often take the easy road and just provide one approach ... Those who make it, make it and those who don't, don't." Immigrant children love and respect their schools. In return, they hope that educators will notice them. They hope for guidance in the discovery of all that an American education can offer.
Drop-Out Rates of Immigrant vs. Native-Born Students

Race/Ethnicity Foreign-Born U.S.-Born Children Children
 of Immigrants of Natives

Mexican 35.0 19.0 27.7
Other Hispanic 24.6 9.7 25.3
Asian 4.0 4.2 7.0
Non-Hispanic White 7.5 9.2 12.1
Black 16.6 5.1 16.5
TOTAL 17.6 11.2 13.5

Source: Current Population Survey 1995, from
Overlooked & Underserved, The Urban Institute

The Spread of Immigration


During the 1990s, the foreign born population grew by 95 percent in the new immigration growth states, compared to 23 percent in traditional destination states. In the 1980's, most immigrants were concentrated in big cities; now they are more likely to settle in suburban and rural areas.

Source: 2000 U.S. Census data

Footsteps to English fluency.

English literacy is an obvious first step in the education of immigrant students, but educators often misinterpret the way this instruction works. Here's what you need to know:

* One size doesn't fit all

Jorge Ruiz-de-Velasco, co-author of an Urban Institute study on immigrant students, says the debate about which curriculum approach is best--immersion, bilingual, ESL, etc.--has become less important. Each of these programs is appropriate in some circumstances, depending on factors such as when a student migrated and at what age and grade level.

Alberto Ochoa, a San Diego State University education department professor, calls his experience in working with more than 80 school districts on program development for non-English speaking students "reality therapy." "The most important issue is recognizing that probably every school district has different social and cultural contexts that need to be analyzed," he says. A committee of principals, resource teachers, classroom teachers, parents and central office administrators accomplishes this process best.

* Try testing against a successful program

Robert Smith, superintendent of Arlington Public Schools, explains that while his district has had success with dual language immersion, a first language support program is being tested on a pilot basis in four schools. With this approach, children begin school with science and social studies taught in Spanish, and math and language arts taught in English. After two years in the program, the first language support group is performing better than those who received dual language immersion. Arlington works with researchers at George Mason University on new approaches to instruction.

* Students who sound English-proficient still need language assistance

Carola Suarez-Orozco, co-director of the five-year Harvard Immigration Project, says this is a common misunderstanding among educators. "You can get to a stage of having an everyday conversation fairly quickly within a year or two," she says. Being able to read and write with fluency takes much longer.

* ESL teachers can't be responsible for every aspect of a student's education

Ruiz-de-Velasco has discovered that ESL teachers often assume administrative, placement and advising functions that for mainstream students are normally handled by principals, counselors, registrars, librarians and other administrators. He believes the ESL teacher should be just one member of a team dedicated to helping the student succeed in school.

Melissa Ezarik, mezarik@edmediagroup. com, is features editor.
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Author:Ezarik, Melissa
Publication:District Administration
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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