Becoming American

Dale Patrick Dempsey

The current wave of Latino protests in the streets over immigration, and the policy debates over this issue in the halls of Congress will go on, but the hard task of blending millions of immigrants (legal or not) into American society marches on daily, at least in the nation’s schools. Ohio is no exception.

In 2003, Latinos accounted for nearly nine million students in the nation’s K-12 public schools, or 19 percent of total enrollment, according to an issue brief by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank examining Hispanic issues.

Statewide, Ohio’s immigrant population has risen 31 percent since 1990. In Franklin County (the Columbus-area), the foreign-born population increased by nearly 39 percent over the same period. The newcomers are not only Hispanic. Ohio’s immigrants also come from Somalia, Vietnam, China, Portugal, France and Central America. They work in the fields, they work in the expanding Honda auto plants, and in some cases, they have no work at all.

This fact of contemporary life in America’s schools presents a new array of challenges, as Ohio and other states are coming to grips with the No Child Left Behind law. Hispanic groups have pushed the federal government to include first-time English Language Learners (ELL) in state assessment and accountability systems. However, some school administrators around the country are pushing for modifications in NCLB to give schools with high numbers of ELL a break when measuring achievement.

NCLR reports that over half of Hispanic students are ELL, and their proficiency results should be included along with native English speakers in evaluating a school’s performance. This presents challenges not only for states with a history of large immigrant populations, such as Texas and California, but also for state’s like South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana that saw their number of ELL students nearly double between 1994 and 2004.

Often, children of immigrants who enter America’s school system are the only ones in the family who speak English. Lourdes Lambert, principal at East End Community School in Dayton (a charter school), and a first-generation Cuban-American, knows the situation well. Out of 160 students at East End, 23 are Hispanic immigrants and the number is growing each year. “The school is the only place they speak English,” Lambert said.

The situation is challenging for teachers and students alike.

“The hardest thing is the initial assimilation,” Lambert said. “Everybody is speaking but you don’t know what they are saying. You don’t know how to ask where the bathroom is.” At East End, language instruction starts in kindergarten. Sink or swim. There is no bilingual education at East End, but immersion in the daily culture of the school, which is in English. Lambert observes that fortunately, “little kids are such sponges.”

For older students entering the school, the transition is often more difficult, as language and thought patterns are locked in, and learning a new language is harder.

In Columbus, North Linden Elementary School has seen a decline in overall enrollment over the past five years, but their number of ELL students has increased dramatically. Last year, a full 37 percent of their students were ELL, partly attributable to the surge of Somali refugees and Mexican immigrants to the area. North Linden has hired two language instructors, one who speaks Somali and one who speaks Spanish.

At North Linden, non-English speaking students are placed in English immersion classrooms and are paired with English speaking students who also communicate using their native language. The English speaking students help teach English to the new arrivals.

Large waves of immigrants have always been central to the American experience. During the decade between 1840 and 1850, the years of the potato famine in Ireland, the number of Irish in America swelled from 1.2 million to almost 7 million. But what is new is that while in the past most U. S. immigrants came from Europe, now nearly 80 percent come from south of the border and Asia.

 

With the No Child Left Behind Act, both English and non-English speaking students are held to the same standard. Finding innovative and effective ways of bringing immigrant children who enter America into the nation’s language and culture will be a central responsibility for future educators, as it was for those of the past. In Ohio, as elsewhere, the public schools—charter and district alike—are at the center of the effort to ensure America remains a melting pot and does not become a collection of different nationalities living separately in one country. 

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