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 cant 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
"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 didnt like school here," she said. "I was
raised very different: not to look adults in the eye when you speak,
dont answer unless youre 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
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.
"Its 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
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 Bronxs 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 dont 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 dont do it good, they will do it again."
Almost every immigrant student echoed Laris 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.
"Its 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
Immigrant students "have to leave a lot of their old culture
behind," Yaghnaian said, "to gain a new one."
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