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By Jennifer Healey
The notion that ALL students can be lifted up and freed from their circumstances, past language barriers, out of poverty and away from war and crime and drugs, upward and onward toward a glorious middle-class future, is absurd. If we insist on being a country with an elite high school population - a “Lake Wobegon” where all students are above average - we are morally obligated to provide alternatives for those who are below.
Politicians across the nation are talking tough about education. The time for reform is now! Our system is broken. Too many of our students are not prepared for college in the 21st century. Americans can’t compete with an international workforce. Our students lack basic critical thinking skills. Happily, the teachers still have them.
From coast to coast, as teachers are blamed for this sad state of affairs, we brace ourselves for the current reforms that are designed to raise the bar for American students. After NCLB highlighted the achievement gap between rich and poor and minority and white students, Common Core State Standards will sweep through to lift everyone to a higher level of thinking and performing. Rest assured, taxpayers, it will be teachers who clean up the mess afterward.
I have no argument against raising the bar. I know it needs raising. But I will rally against this one –size- fits- all legislation that seems designed to crush so many dreams. In the rush to raise standards for our teachers and students, we risk losing the very students that sets our country apart from every other.
I teach ESL classes at the largest urban high schools in Oregon. People often assume this means I speak Spanish. Some of my students speak Spanish, but most are from Asia and Africa. Many are fresh from the forests of Nepal and Bhutan. The jungles of Thailand host the droves of refugees from Myanmar - more ethnic groups that I know. Most of our Somalis have never actually been to Somalia. They speak of “home” in reverent tones, but they emigrated from Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. My class lists could not reflect more diversity. And yet they all have one thing in common: the refugee camps where their families landed after fleeing the fighting in their home countries.
For some, the camps were temporary. In English class, students write about schools in Nairobi or Cairo. Like many migrant workers in the US, these families were constantly on the move, so if the children did attend school, it might have been in different languages from year to year, month to month. We recently got new students from Syria, but they are Iraqi. Their family fled the war a few years ago for the safety of Syria. They were able to escape to the US before the recent escalations there. My student told me with a smile on her face, “We only had our backpacks.”The Level 1 ESL teachers have had to change the curriculum to accommodate these teenage newcomers. Click To Tweet
Within the last five years, we have received many students who have not been so fortunate. Their families have been refugees for longer than they can remember. The students were born and grew up in the camps in Nepal and Thailand, and the tents and straw huts are all they have known of school, childhood, and life on earth. The Level 1 ESL teachers have had to change the curriculum to accommodate these teenage newcomers. They do not know how to hold pencils correctly. They have never brushed their teeth. The girls are horrified and confused when they menstruate. Our female teachers and assistants help them with sanitary needs in the staff bathroom. Their donated clothes never fit right - often made for the other gender, but the kids can’t tell that yet. Pants are pants, right? It’s not uncommon for these students to spend a whole semester silently staring out the window, not participating in the vocabulary drills or morning calendar routine. It sometimes takes us months to diagnose otherwise obvious disabilities like vision or hearing impairments. We finally have an on-site clinic for help with such things because our school lost a full- time nurse years ago.
Most states currently do not differentiate between refugee ELL and ELL. I’ve even been told by some district leaders, “Well, all our students are learning English, aren’t they? They’re all ELL’s!” Well, yes and no. A child who was born in the US and did nothing but watch TV for 5 years before entering Kindergarten is still better prepared for school than refugee students. Everyone knows the research about language acquisition by now: It can take 5-7 years of academic schooling for a student to become fluent in the language of school: biology and civics vocabulary, for example. And those 5-7 years assume prior literacy, which means it is, in fact, impossible for an uneducated immigrant to arrive in a high school at 16 or older and graduate under our current system. Despite how hard they work to assimilate and learn like their non-ELL peers, this year will be the first in which students don’t make the cut due to their inability to pass the state writing test. In 2014 math will be required, and that will certainly rule out others.
Each year, the United States allows up to 80,000 refugees to enter the US. The numbers ebb and flow, and some states take more than their fair share. Some states simply say “no more.” Even states with great social services like mine can only absorb so much. This link shows states with the highest numbers of refugee students.
The US has a long history of immigration. Cities that were hubs had to absorb these newcomers and often changed their public schools to fit the needs of the students- imagine it! In the heated political debate about Latino immigrants, how many people remember the widespread use of bilingual education in the northeast and elsewhere to help the German immigrants? Bilingual education is politically impossible now, and impractical at my school, where students speak more than 55 languages. But still, to hold all students to the same standards punishes them, and us.
This week, I have a few students who need glasses, one may be hearing impaired, another screams when we put the headphones on her to take her English test. I need to take the long view too. Assimilation happens here, but it may take more than a generation. My Somali girls aren’t allowed to be on our track or basketball teams, but I bet their daughters will be. Many of the undocumented students have dropped out, seeing no hope of a better future for themselves. But their children will be more likely to finish school.
In the short term, I just want to see all my hard-working students get a chance to wear the cap and gown. Their dreams are so reasonable; a high school diploma, community college, marriage, their own apartments, children. Is our system so broken we cannot even offer this? Are we not the only country in the world that welcomes every student into our classrooms, regardless of race, religion, income, and ability? Shouldn’t our laws reflect that diversity?
Jennifer Healey has taught for 17 years, and now chairs the ESL department of the largest high school in Oregon. She teaches grammar and social studies to immigrants from all over the world. Over the years, she has taught every grade level, and though currently at grades 9-12, she knows K-2 teachers work circles around the rest of us. She spends her free time with her husband, also a teacher, and her two children.