Immigration and Schools, Part 2: Classrooms

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Immigration and Schools, Part 2: Classrooms
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Immigration & Diversity
“Schools mull the formerly unthinkable” (front page headline, Charlotte Observer). North Carolina school districts are weighing unpalatable options because of surging enrollment. Some of those options: schools consisting entirely of prefabricated classrooms - they cost less but wear out faster, asking students too come to classes at staggered times or year-round, and cutting kindergarten to a half-day. The purpose? Free up classroom space.
Immigration and Schools, Part 1 describes the scope of recent immigration and gives a capsule history of legislation and judicial rulings that have resulted in heavy - and often illegal - immigration.
The impact is greatest in southern and western states. In North Carolina, for example, Hispanic students are expected to make up a third of the state’s high school enrollment by 2013. The scramble for classroom space is the most obvious challenge for school districts. Educating large numbers of children for whom English is a second language and whose economic circumstances are limited is the more profound challenge.
I asked a veteran teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District what heavy immigration means for teachers. She replied:
- LEPs (Limited English Proficient Students) - “Many of these kids come to kindergarten ill-prepared. They don’t even speak their native language well! They are tested in both English and Spanish. We refer to them as ‘non-nons’ (no language at all!) The joke was, ‘Were they locked in a closet and let out for kindergarten?’ Most have no school experience whatsoever; their hands shake when they hold a pencil or crayon for the first time because they haven’t developed their small motor skills, and they don’t know how to use a pair of scissors. They don’t know how to tie their shoes, name colors, any letters, or how to count to ten. Given the stepped-up nature of California Language Arts Standards . . . these kids are supposed to settle down and learn to actually read by the end of the year!”
- Poverty - “It’s hard to teach kids who sleep on the floor in a crowded apartment while older siblings watch TV or babies are howling. I’ve had kids fall fast asleep in class more than once. Some have chronic health conditions that aren’t treated - sinus/allergy problems that keep them from sleeping, so they can’t concentrate in school, chronic throat or stomach problems that aren’t taken care of. Many also have dental problems, cavities that need to be filled, teeth that hurt. Many go to ‘curanderas’ - folk healers, because that’s all they can afford. And God help us when a child needs medication for hyperactivity or other mental disabilities! It often takes a lot of parent/administration meetings to get a parent steered towards places that will diagnose and offer free medication. Hyperactivity seems to be a major epidemic now. Is it the lousy diets, too much TV and stimulation? . . Many parents are uninvolved or illegal and afraid to get their kids the help they need.”
- Parenting - “Some parents just don’t know how to parent! Besides the obvious effects of low education (unable to help with homework), parents don’t understand the importance of breakfast (provided free right before school - they just have to come a little earlier), the effect of frequent absences, the importance of homework and reading every night. We suspect that there are more drug babies, possibly because of the meth crisis. We have some really whacked-out kids in the last few years. I asked our Vice Principal for Special Ed about it, and he said it’s happening at other schools, too. Seriously whacked-out kids. Mine just moved to Compton (thank God!). He was seriously ADHD and paranoid. Parents won’t tell you if they took drugs during pregnancy, but sometimes you have to wonder.”
“My students this year just can’t concentrate. Is it too much TV, or living in an apartment with a lot of commotion all the time? They really can’t sit, they interrupt, and constantly jabber. Also, a lot of memory problems. A lot of students simply cannot retain information . . . Also, I’ve had a student with a parent in jail in almost every class.”
- Citizenship - “We have to spend so much time on basic reading/writing/math skills that kids are seriously lacking in science and social studies backgrounds. The little social studies they get always seems to include a huge amount of information on Martin Luther King. That’s okay, but they don’t know who Lincoln or Washington is. I feel really sorry for the intelligent kids. The focus is on raising test scores. CA API scores award more points for raising ‘far below basic’ test scores, so that’s where most of the resources and efforts are put. Gifted funding has been cut. Gifted kids have to sit patiently in school while we hash and rehash out the same old skills, over and over, to the slow learners.” 

Good zip codes

Finally, I asked the teacher about the impact of heavy immigration on middle-class families, children who arrive at school with good English proficiency, prepared to learn. Her reply:
“There are some fantastic public schools, still - mainly in good zip codes, but you really have to ccheck them out. Many have changed because of neighborhood changes . . . [A once highly regarded high school] is a gang-infested area now.”
“So, many parents either opt for private schools, or yes, they move. The Las Virgenes District and Santa Clarita-Newhall District, as well as the Conejo Valley School System, are all overcrowded, and booming. Homes are extremely expensive in those areas . . .”
“[Of a neighborhood she is looking towards for her own family] . . . we’re looking vigilantly for housing in that area. There’s a complex with a few tiny condos we could buy into . . . but we’re hoping to hold out for something better.” 


Heavy immigration confronts states and localities with three formidable challenges as regards education: 1) how to find needed space without compromising the school experience, 2) how to provide a strong school experience for large numbers of children who face severe obstacles and 3) how to provide a solid academic experience for children ready for a rigorous curriculum - without forcing their families to seek private schools or homes “in good zip codes.”
Tom Shuford is a retired teacher living in Lenoir, North Carolina. This article originally appeared in, May, 2007.



Tom Shuford
2011 May 12