How Immigrant Students Strengthen American Schools
By: Eileen Kugler
A high school chemistry teacher engaged his students in a discussion of the relationship of science and society, which quickly evolved into safety testing and animal rights. A student in the back shyly raised his hand. “What are ‘animal rights’?” he asked. Recently emigrating from an African country to escape starvation, his deep connection to animals was based in their vital role of providing food and clothing. The rest of the class thoughtfully quieted. Many had never considered what it might be like if they didn’t come home to a well-stocked refrigerator, complete with vegetarian options. The teacher knew this was a moment of awareness that he couldn’t have taught alone. His students were thinking critically beyond their own frame of reference, inspired by a peer.
A kindergartener told a visitor that her friend would not be in class that day. Her classmate was visiting his grandparents in Korea. This young student could even show you where Korea is on the map in the front of the room. Her world view, at five, was that her friends might have family who were not born in the same place as hers, who ate different foods, who sometimes used words she didn’t understand. She couldn’t wait for her friend to come back to see what new things he would bring for show-and-tell from far-away Korea.
A young mother worried that her son would be teased at school. In first grade, he wore a baseball cap to cover his bald head, the result of the disease alopecia areata. But his head became itchy and he soon took the cap off. What happened that year and the rest of his time at this school? Nothing. Because at this school, there was no such thing as being “different” – some students sang songs in Spanish, some had freckles that came out when they played in the sun, some wound their long hair in turbans, and some had no hair. That’s just life.
Yes, this is life in schools with immigrant students. There are enrichments on so many levels because of the diversity of experiences and background knowledge. A middle school world history teacher put the academic enhancements this way: “I know I have to be extra prepared for what I teach every day because the students bring such a range of perspectives and insights to discussions,” adding, “That’s why I love teaching in this school.”
The many contributions of immigrant students go largely unnoticed. Our society values schools based on their high average test scores or the predominance of middle-class students (strongly linked together), ignoring the unique benefits of schools rich with immigrant students of every economic level. Many American-born parents with the luxury of choosing a school seek places where there are others with backgrounds like their own child, rather than seeing the value – academic as well as social – in schools with immigrant students.
Immigrant students and their families contribute to the learning of every one who is a part of that school. I know this first-hand from the experiences of my family as our children went to one of the most ethnically and economically diverse public high schools in the country, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. They are now well-educated broad-minded adults, engaged in the world around them. And my husband and I learned so much from the immigrant families, like resilience and commitment, all the while enjoying the opportunity to share in family celebrations from a quinceañera, a joyous coming-of-age for a 15-year old Latina, to a Seik wedding with the groom riding in on a white horse.
And I know the benefits that immigrants bring to a school from my work strengthening school culture around the world over the past decade. With diverse perspectives and insights, classroom discussions become more dynamic. Students learn to question more, to think more deeply, and to collaborate effectively with those who are different from themselves. They become better problem-solvers, understanding that there is more than one “right” perspective.
Stereotypes break down and evaporate in these schools. At a high school basketball game, a mother wondered out loud why the star player was a little off. Her daughter rolled her eyes, saying, “Mom, don’t you know it is Ramadan and she fasted all day?”
But this enriched learning environment doesn’t take place in every multicultural school. Only when immigrant students feel truly connected to school will they engage in their learning and share their own wisdom. It takes hard work from the school leadership and the entire school community to create a culture of equity where every student, and every family, feels authentically welcomed and valued. As one experienced principal said to me, “When we saw an influx of immigrant students to our school, we thought all we had to do was welcome them with open arms. But we soon learned that is not enough.”
Instead of focusing on test-taking skills and fact drills to diminish the achievement gap, schools need to first pay attention to building a culture that says every student of every background has value. It requires some challenging introspection about how the school and the classrooms operate, beyond the curriculum and instructional methods.
Tough questions need to be asked. Do the “traditions” of the school mean we do it the way it has always been done and newcomers must just fit in? Are English Language Learners isolated in a corner of the school with little integration into school life? Are immigrants viewed as people who need simply to be taught the American way, with no one listening to the lessons that they can teach the rest? Are well-meaning teachers lowering expectations for immigrant students out of pity because they focus on what they may lack?
Creating a culture of equity is important to American society because of the inherent unfairness of providing some students a meaningful education and some not. But it is more than that. It is about valuing the innate ability of every child, recognizing their strengths, and helping them thrive and contribute in school and in society at large. This benefits each of us, and the future of American society depends upon it.
Parents like me, whose children were part of strong multicultural schools, know that our families were given a gift. Yet we still fight the image that a multicultural school is not academically challenging, not a good place for every student.
“How can we get parents beyond these school walls to understand how special these schools are?” asked a parent at a community dialogue I led. By sharing the truth, I replied.
Let’s break down the myths and hail the values that immigrant students bring to our schools every day. We all need the lessons that they can teach us.
Eileen Gale Kugler helps schools develop positive high-achieving culture that values every student and family. She is author of the award-winning “Debunking the Middle-class Myth: Why Diverse Schools are Good for All Kids” and Executive Editor of the global resource, Innovative Voices in Education: Engaging Diverse Communities. She can be reached at EKugler (at) EmbraceDiverseSchools. Follow her on Twitter at @embracediversiT
This blogpost first appeared on the American Immigration Council’s Teach Immigration blog, Immigraton In and Out of the Classroom