OCTOBER 2002

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Educating Immigrant Children:
English Is Not The Only Issue Newcomers Face

By Joe Lamport

In his second year of American high school, Fusseni Ishmeal, 16, talks about his experience of classes with gasps, expressions of amazement, laughter — and disdain.

"I can’t believe how these American kids act," said Ishmeal who moved from Ghana. He was referring to "constant" talking in class, fighting after class and disrespectful remarks toward teachers.

"They act like children," Ishmeal said. "They just want to have fun."

Julissa Jose, another recent high school graduate who arrived from the Dominican Republic eight years ago, attended an all-girls private Catholic school in the Dominican Republic before coming to the United States and attending public school.

"I didn’t like school here," she said. "I was raised very different: not to look adults in the eye when you speak, don’t answer unless you’re spoken to. I saw everything was very different here, so I never wanted to go to school."

As New York City schools absorb an influx of immigrant students, immigrant students say they face more than just a language barrier in classrooms. Cultural issues deeply affect how well immigrant children learn and can be a more significant barrier than their understanding of English.

About 17 percent of students enrolled in city schools from kindergarten to 12th grade have arrived in the country within the last three years, according to the Board of Education. In some districts, officials estimate the proportion is as much as 40 percent. If the children of recent immigrants are added, the proportion in some districts increases to almost 50 percent.

Overall, recent immigrant students are actually less likely to drop out of high school than students born in the United States. But the likelihood that they will quit school is tied to how soon they start, according to a Board of Education study of the class of 2001.

Immigrant students who started school here in seventh or eighth grade had a 17.4 percent dropout rate, the study indicated, compared to a 20.4 percent rate for their American-born peers. But students who arrived and started in ninth grade or higher had a higher dropout rate, at 21.3 percent.

Learning a new language is just one of the obstacles immigrant children face in American schools, said Lorraine McDonnell, a political science professor at the University of Santa Barbara who has studied immigrant children issues for the Rand Corporation.

"Teachers are concentrating mostly on English," said Atash Yaghnaian, a youth development specialist at the Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, an alternative high school whose student body is comprised mostly of immigrants. But, she said, having left behind almost everything familiar, immigrant children need to learn much more than a new language.

"It’s a huge cultural shock," she said. "Most of the time, the first thing that bothers them a lot is that they feel that this system is really cold, that they are just a number here."

Teachers may unwittingly prevent children learning well by forcing them to learn in an American style too quickly or with little sensitivity to their values and beliefs.

In one class, for example, a group of Muslim girls sat next to each other. A teacher made them sit next to boys.

"These children come from countries where girls and boys go to separate schools," Yaghnaian said. "This should be handled little by little."

Maxi Jeanty Junior arrived from Haiti four years ago when he was 20, and was shocked to learn that he could not enroll in most American high schools at his age. In Haiti, as in many other countries, high school students often continue in school into their mid-20s.

American teaching styles take time to get used to, said Miri Lari, a senior at the Bronx’s Theodore Roosevelt High School.

In Ghana, children are expected to respond to teachers’ prodding and questioning to assure they are learning material. Lari said she felt American teachers expected more initiative from students than Ghanaian teachers do.

"The way American teachers teach, they don’t ask about what you learned yesterday," she said. "In Ghana, they give you homework and then they check it the next day. And if they see you don’t do it good, they will do it again."

Almost every immigrant student echoed Lari’s opinion.

"Here, teachers are very relaxed," said Jeanty, the Haitian youth. "And students are more disrespectful. In Haiti, you might spend a whole year out of school if you disrespect a teacher."

To what extent immigrant children must adapt to American schools and to what extent teachers and schools must adapt to the children is an open question.

"A student is necessarily changed just by walking in the door," said Paul Gorski, assistant director of the Office of Human Relations at the University of Maryland. Gorski conducts workshops for teachers on multicultural education around the country.

The issue is "not really about culture," Gorski said. "It’s about equity. Does every student who walks into your school have the opportunity to achieve his or her fullest regardless of his or her background?"

The statistics indicate the answer is no, he said.

Gorski helps teachers identify their biases and prejudices in order to help them reach every student in their classrooms. Such workshops are becoming more common but other efforts to address diversity-- such as putting up a picture of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr or having an international food day-- are little more than tokens, Gorski said.

Ultimately, immigrant children juggle roles and identities, making a variety of compromises to fit in, like new kids in any school. But some of them say they can lose themselves in the process and fail as a result.

Fusseni Ishmeal, who expresses disdain at the behavior of American students, sees some of his fellow Ghanaian students acting like those Americans, jazzing up their clothing and coarsening their language.

Immigrant students "have to leave a lot of their old culture behind," Yaghnaian said, "to gain a new one."

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