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Educating Immigrant Students: A Story in Every Community

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I spent an academic year as an embedded reporter inside a Memphis high school that enrolled hundreds of children of Mexican immigrants. Many of the young people I met that year had lived most of their lives in the United States, and in some cases were born here. Most spoke fluent English.

As I followed these English-speaking students around the school, I paid much less attention to another group of young people: kids who had recently arrived from other countries and spoke little English.

In hindsight, maybe I should have tried to learn more about these new arrivals, because across the United States, schools are seeing an increasing number of young people coming straight from Central American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as from other corners of the world.

What should journalists know about these immigrant kids? Here are the main takeaways from a discussion moderated by education reporter Liz Bowie of the Baltimore Sun. The panel, part of the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar last month in Boston, featured educators from two urban school systems and an education researcher.

Rising Numbers

Madeline Mavrogordato, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, said the number of English-language learners continues to grow across the country, including in southern and midwestern states not known as traditional immigrant destinations. She said there were 4.3 million English-language learners in the 2008-2009 school year and 4.4 million in 2013-2014.

This statement about rising numbers of English-language learners surprised me, because the Pew Hispanic Center recently released a report finding that Hispanics in the U.S. increasingly speak English and are increasingly likely to have been born in this country, which automatically makes them citizens.

I asked Mavrogordato about this, and she said both things are true at the same time — increasing numbers of young Hispanics in the U.S. speak English fluently and are U.S. citizens, even as a different group of newcomers arrive from Central America and elsewhere around the world and struggle with language barriers.

Also, she said some kids can speak English well but still lack the ability to sink their teeth into an academic text. And being born in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily mean a child speaks English well — some might still speak their native language at home.

Experiencing Trauma

Many of the young immigrants who arrive in American school systems have faced severe family problems and gang violence in their countries of origin. Many faced even more trauma on the way to the U.S.

As Bowie put it in a recent series for the Baltimore Sun: “They journeyed hundreds of treacherous miles without adults, dodging those who might rob, rape or kidnap them. . . . Young immigrant (psychiatric) patients have been kidnapped for ransom, witnessed beheadings and seen dying people abandoned in the Mexican desert.”

And this trauma shows up in the classroom. “Mirroring a national trend, teachers are seeing more cases, and more extreme cases, of mental health issues — depression, anxiety and self-mutilation — than ever before,” Bowie writes.

Lack of Prior Schooling?

Some high-school age immigrant students show up in the U.S. years behind their American peers academically. Some not only don’t know English, they have never learned to read and write in any language.

Bowie profiled Monique Ngomba from the Central African Republic, and writes that at age 16, she began high school with the academic skill of a prekindergartener.

“These students, who have interrupted or little schooling, are often a puzzle to educators and may remain in culture shock for months,” Bowie writes. “State and national statistics show they post the lowest pass rates on standardized tests — and are dropping out at a higher rate — than any other group.”

That said, Rosanna DeMammos of the District of Columbia Public Schools told the EWA audience that some English-language learners in the nation’s capital are the children of diplomats.

Uneven Responses

Some school districts offer extensive support to English-language learners. Frances Esparza of the Boston Public Schools said during the panel that some schools in her district offer dual-language programs, with students getting instruction in their language of origin as well as English. The district already offers dual-language programs in Spanish and plans to do the same for Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, Mandarin and Cape Verdean Creole, which is spoken in a group of islands off the coast of west Africa. The district is also looking at adding Somali, Esparza said.

By contrast, some districts around the country are ill-prepared to work with English-language learners and don’t offer much support to them at all, Mavrogordato said. A recent investigative story from the Associated Press revealed that some districts block immigrant students from going to school.

How to Start Reporting

After the talk, Bowie shared some further guidance for reporters trying to get started on covering the education of immigrant children. Here are a few key points:

  • Examine state and local data in your area to determine if the number of immigrants has increased in school districts or the state as a whole. Also, ask school system leaders whether they are seeing an influx of various types of immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers.
  • If there is an increase, find out where those newcomers are going. Are they concentrated in a particular school? What effect are they having on the entire school? Are they able to get the services they need?
  • Take a look at what happens when there is just an immigrant here and there in a school. What are the barriers to learning English? How are they doing? Keep in mind that the entry process is much harder for high school students than elementary students.

Journalists also can pick up a lot of ideas from reading the series Bowie produced for the Baltimore Sun.

I’d like to add some tips on reporting on immigrant families, based on my own experience:

  • Ask a community liaison to make introductions. Talk with an adult who works with the students and ask for introductions to families. Your adult liaison might be a teacher, a sports coach, a church member, or any other adult who knows the community.
  • Carefully explain to parents — and young people — who you are and what you’re doing. Immigrant families may mistake you for some type of social worker or teacher, especially if they just met you. I suggest bringing copies of work you’ve already done, showing it to the parents and children and telling them that is what the end result of your interviews will look like. Ethically, you should get parents’ permission to interview children. In cases of unaccompanied minors, obtaining parental consent can prove difficult, of course, so you have to handle it on a case-by-case basis.
  • Hire professional interpreters, and avoid using child interpreters. You might not know the language of the family you’re writing about, and if you visit a home, family members may suggest using a child to interpret for you. I would strongly caution against doing this. Interpreting between languages requires training and experience, and the child interpreter is probably doing it wrong – you have no way of knowing. Also, you might need to discuss adult topics that a child shouldn’t hear. I would recommend using a child interpreter only for something very basic, like setting up a meeting. It’s far better to hire a professional interpreter, preferably one that has certification to interpret in court or in hospitals. Yes, this costs money, but it’s worth it,

Background Reading

If you’re writing about Central American children, I recommend you read Sonia Nazario’s 2006 book “Enrique’s Journey,” which tells the true-life story of a teenager who hops trains on an insanely dangerous trip from Honduras to North Carolina. For a firsthand look at recent immigrant and refugee children in schools, read Brooke Hauser’s 2011 book, “The New Kids.”

Appeal to Hope

I’d encourage you to highlight the human potential of the young people you’re reporting about. Many of these kids are capable of a lot with the right guidance and support. Yes, part of your job is to write about problems, but be sure to appeal to readers’ hope for a good outcome and suggest some solutions. For instance, Bowie’s series includes information about how readers can donate money and clothes to refugees and serve as mentors.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the EWA talk is that the story of English-language learners is probably sitting out there for you to do in your community. So why not do it?

Blog contributor Daniel Connolly works for The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal and has written a book on children of Mexican immigrants growing up in Memphis, “The Book of Isaias.” It’s coming out in October from St. Martin’s Press of New York. For more information visit