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An American education: refugees and new immigrants face challenges to graduation

Haredo Mohamed, left, DaHimNa Be and Sanam Masih participate in Valerie Gates' ESL class at West High School in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Desert News
By Gretchen Krebs
Thursday, January 10, 2013

It's a chilly winter morning and eight students sit in Valerie Gates' ESL class for "new arrivals" at West High School. They are enjoying a feast of international flavors including Egyptian basbousa cake, Burmese breakfast rice and Mexican rice with mole.

Gates talks with her students about the dishes they have each brought to share. She speaks slowly and clearly so her students, who only speak a few words of English, have time to hear and translate her words. They answer her questions with shy smiles and short, cautious phrases.

"What time did you wake up to make this rice?"

"Five o'clock I wake up today," answers Rafiq, a refugee from Burma who is proud of his efforts, though he doesn't know what his breakfast dish is called.

"Did you make this mole yourself?"

"No," comes the quiet reply from a girl from Mexico, "My mother make."

Gates teaches ESL classes at West, where almost 40 percent of 2,500 students are English language learners. She says some are "so bright, and yet things are hard here because of the language."

Population data indicate 40 million immigrants were living in the United States in 2010, double the immigrant population of 1990. Of these, 2.4 million are children — that's almost as many children as live in the state of Ohio. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that 72 percent of immigrants entered the country legally. Parents come to the country for work, but children must enroll in a school system that is largely unprepared to serve them.

Despite a national increase in the overall graduation rate, the dropout rate for foreign-born refugee and immigrant students remains above 30 percent, three times that of U.S.-born white students, and twice as high as the dropout rate of native-born Latino students. Now, in an effort to boost their graduation statistics, school systems across the U.S. are trying new ways to keep English language learners on track.

Different backgrounds, outcomes

The bell rings and West High assistant principal Rick Jaramillo walks down the hall, greeting students by name as they head to their next class. He still remembers students he taught two decades ago, before he became an administrator and before his hair began to gray. West serves several growing local immigrant communities, and the high school sits less than a mile away from local offices of three different refugee resettlement organizations.

The first wave of refugees from a country in conflict that Jaramillo usually sees at West include people with the most money and access to escape. The children from these families tend to be wealthier, better educated and more familiar with English. Their families expect them to graduate, and many go on to college.

Years later, he says, the school begins to see students from poorer and less-educated families of those countries, some of whom have lived in refugee camps with few educational opportunities for years before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security approves them for resettlement in the U.S. Jaramillo has seen this cycle with families from Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia (now Bosnia, Sarajevo, and Croatia), and now Somalia.

Some students have never been to school, but now they are in high school classes because of their age. One 12th-grader enrolled at West a few months ago. He speaks almost no English and had not been in school since sixth grade. He is not expected to make up the learning — or credits — he would need to graduate by June. Instead, he will "exit the system" without a diploma. Gates hopes he and students like him at least learn a little English," have some success and feel good about being here.

For students who come to the United States with some education, some English or a little more time to catch up before they age out of public education, graduation is possible. Gates teaches English language learners (ELLs) at all levels. In her "level three" group, students demonstrate a growing proficiency in English. Some of these students came to the U.S. already speaking some English; others arrived young enough to learn the language before graduation loomed. Most are excited to graduate.

Angel Perez, an 11th-grader from Guatemala, seems perpetually excited to be in class but says he is nervous about graduation. "I need to learn more things," he explains. "Last year I didn't speak a lot of English, so I got a lot of F's." Perez, who loves chess and is active in the school's NJROTC program, plans to enroll in the school's credit recovery program, completing the makeup packets for the classes he failed during his first year in the country.

Josie Wankier, former ESL coordinator at West and current IB counselor, says that the school often arranges funding for ELL students to participate in the credit recovery program because "they didn't have an equal opportunity to access (the course work) the first time." A few students are even allowed to stay for an extra, "super senior" year to finish credits they missed during their transition to the U.S. Others are referred to local adult education programs where they can pursue a diploma or GED.

The school tracks the progress of ELL students for two years after they leave the school. Wankier reports they are sending more and more students to programs at SLCC, Weber State and the University of Utah.

California and New York City both recently developed plans to expand bilingual and dual language programs so families can choose an educational setting that allows their children to continue making academic progress while learning English, keeping them on track to graduate.

Academic access

Even students who excel academically struggle to adjust to the American high school system. According to Wankier, "Some of our really high (achieving) kids don't have access to (advanced) AP and IB classes" because of a perception that they wouldn't succeed in academically challenging classes unless they were fluent in English. Wankier hopes to change that perception in her new role as the school's international baccalaureate counselor, guiding students who are interested inenrolling in the college preparation program.

Students like Kyaw Aye, an 11th-grader from Thailand, would benefit from such a change. Aye is in regular high school classes and says he is anxious to be done with high school so he can start working and taking college classes. Doodling on the corner of his physics homework, he comments that the work he is assigned in high school is very easy.

The risk for children whose abilities don't align with the curriculum is that they will decide school is not the right place for them. Many immigrant students drop out of school, believing they can better help their families by working. Others, especially girls from traditional families, according to Jaramillo, leave school for early marriage.

In New York City, the Department of Education operates Young Adult Borough Centers offering evening classes to students with daytime work and family responsibilities. In Mississippi, the Columbus School District is reaching out to community groups and churches to host eCenters where students who had dropped out of school can re-enroll in online Skype-based classes to finish high school or prepare for a GED exam.

Wankier, the IB counselor at West, agrees with the community approach. "I wish we put a little more emphasis on educating our families on how to access the education system," she says, "This is a school community. If we don't involve the community … we're not really supporting our students."

Gretchen Krebs has taught general and special education in New York and Utah. She is passionate about finding innovative approaches to meet the needs of all students. Contact her at [email protected]


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