It’s an issue in every part of the country.
In Lexington, Neb., where the majority of the factory town’s 2,800 students are Hispanic. In Minneapolis, which has the largest community of Somalis in America. And at Newtown High School in the Elmhurst section of Queens, where students come from all over the world and speak dozens of languages.
America’s public schools are dealing with a level of linguistic and cultural diversity unknown 50 years ago, when the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in its Brown v. Board of Education decision of May 17, 1954.
Today, public schools struggling to fulfill the spirit of the Brown decision — equal access to educational opportunity for all — now have a task made more complex and difficult by an ever-growing number of students (and their parents) who aren’t even native English speakers.
In this information-based economy, the stakes are increasingly high for those who don’t get the education they need — potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in earning power over the course of a lifetime, middle class vs. minimum wage.
“When we don’t give kids the chances we’re giving the rest of the students, we’re creating two different nations,” said Mario Godoy-Gonzalez, who teaches bilingual classes in Royal City, Wash. “One that is for the people who can speak the language and prove they can be successful and the other, the one that nobody wants to be in.”
Schools are trying to respond to the need: More than 3.7 million public school students were offered English language learner services in the 2001-2002 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In California alone, close to 25 percent of students received linguistic help.
But education advocates say the response isn’t enough. They argue a de facto segregation is developing between those who speak English and those who don’t — the kind of discrimination the Brown decision was meant to work against.
“We’re still far from fulfilling that promise,” said Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children, a New York City-based organization that deals with education issues.
“School districts are way behind, (they’re) not incorporating what is no longer a niche population.”
The difference that language resources can make is clear to 17-year-old Newtown High School senior Jackson Gao, who arrived from China four years ago with no grasp of English. The middle school he attended didn’t have English as a second language — ESL — resources to offer him, forcing him to try to pick up the language on his own, while also learning the same academic content his classmates were being taught.
“It was horrible,” Gao said. “The teachers, they think you know English and they just teach in English, but I was taking notes and I was going home and checking out the dictionary. It was a pretty hard time.”
That all changed at Newtown. The school, with more than 4,000 students and located in a borough that Census figures show is home to people from more than 60 countries, offers ESL in Chinese, Korean and Spanish.
Students are taught English, but are also taught content material — like science — in their native tongues. Glossaries are handed out, with the vocabularies used in classes such as earth science and American government translated. Notices are sent home to parents in a number of languages.
It’s been a lifeline for Gao. This fall, he will be a freshman at Baruch College, part of the city’s university system. That’s something he knows may not have been possible without the help he received.
Alexandra Martinez was an ESL student at Newtown and now walks the crowded halls as a Spanish teacher. She never would have considered higher education if not for the language help.
“When I got to this country, they put me in regular classes, and I was totally lost,” she recalled. “I was upset, I didn’t want to come to school, my mother had to beg me to go to school. I thought ... ’If it’s going to be like that, it’s going to be a waste of time.”’
Educators around the country are making efforts to help students facing similar challenges. In Lexington, there are structured English-immersion classes for students. Minneapolis has a dual-language elementary school, as well as a charter school for Somali students. In Royal City, Godoy-Gonzalez teaches bilingual classes to 58 students originally from Mexico.
“Many schools are trying to keep these kids in the classroom,” Godoy-Gonzalez said.
Yet it’s not nearly adequate, those in the field acknowledge.
“We’re still quite a long way from a concerted national effort,” said Barbara Bowman, professor of early childhood education at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school for child development in Chicago.
“What Brown did was make for a concerted national effort, but it required people to change. We haven’t gotten that kind of centering of interest right now.”
A major concern is funding, a constant struggle for public schools generally.
In New York, “the school system is so under-resourced and overstretched to begin with, they can’t begin to deal with the needs of the native English speakers,” said Annetta Seecharran, executive director of South Asian Youth Action, a Queens-based support organization. “Then you have this new group that has these special needs.
They don’t know what to do with that.”
Dick Eisenhauer, superintendent of the Lexington public schools in central Nebraska, said his district has depended heavily on nontraditional funding, like grants, to help language education along.
This is one area where additional funds can make a difference because they create an opportunity for training teachers and hiring bilingual staff, said Joseph Erickson, professor of education at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and a member of that city’s school board.
The scarcity of teachers qualified to teach in other languages and trained in bilingual methodologies is a huge barrier to educating non-English speakers, educators and advocates said.
“Money can actually solve a problem,” Erickson said.
That’s something Aida Delgado-Cadena knows from her own experience. At Newtown, where she is an assistant principal of foreign languages, she was able to start a class for students whose literacy even in their native language was poor because of a lack of education in their home countries.
“Because we have the funding, we’re able to do that,” she said. “What happens when (the money) stops?”
Another layer of complexity, advocates say, is that helping non-English speakers is not just about learning a new language. It’s also about acculturating students to a new society, as well as dealing with parents who may speak less English than their children do.
Without services to reach out to those parents, schools are effectively barring them from participating and advocating for their children’s educational success, Seecharran said.
“It’s just a fundamental ingredient to a person’s success in school, whether parents can get involved,” she said.
Seventeen-year-old Israt Jahan, a Newtown junior from Bangladesh, is much more comfortable in English than her parents are.
“My parents don’t even come to the parent-teacher conference because they don’t speak English,” she said. “I don’t want them to feel embarrassed ... I asked them once and they said, ’No, we don’t speak English.”
Erickson also said there’s a sense among Americans that new immigrants aren’t really part of this country, which makes it tougher to get funds for teaching them.
“The critical issue that we really haven’t had a discussion about is who is ’us’? Who are ’Americans,”’ he said. “We’ll do anything for ’us.’ I really don’t believe people believe new immigrants are ’us.”
The range of immigrants in the United States also makes it more difficult for schools, educators said. Students are coming in at all ages. Some are refugees from political turmoil, others just looking for opportunity. Some have attended school in their homelands, others haven’t. Some just need a little help, others need much more.
But by failing to address language issues, children are being denied education opportunities, Chaifetz of Advocates for Children said. That goes against what the Supreme Court was pushing for 50 years ago.
“They weren’t thinking of Spanish speakers, or any other language, but it applies,” she said. “Issues of discrimination go beyond skin color.”