Virginia: Where Education and Assimilation Collide
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Sun Mar 15 12:39:51 UTC 2009
March 15, 2009
Where Education and Assimilation Collide
By GINGER THOMPSON
WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Walking the halls of Cecil D. Hylton High School
outside Washington, it is hard to detect any trace of the divisions
that once seemed fixtures in American society. Two girls, a Muslim in
a headscarf and a strawberry blonde in tight jeans, stroll arm in arm.
A Hispanic boy wearing a Barack Obama T-shirt gives a high-five to a
black student with glasses and an Afro. The lanky homecoming queen,
part Filipino and part Honduran, runs past on her way to band
practice. The student body president, a son of Laotian refugees, hangs
fliers about a bake sale.
But as old divisions vanish, waves of immigration have fueled new ones
between those who speak English and those who are learning how.
Walk with immigrant students, and the rest of Hylton feels a world
apart. By design, they attend classes almost exclusively with one
another. They take separate field trips. And they organize separate
“I am thankful to my teachers because the little bit of English I am
able to speak, I speak because of them,” Amalia Raymundo, from
Guatemala, said during a break between classes. But, she added, “I
feel they hold me back by isolating me.”
Her best friend, Jhosselin Guevara, also from Guatemala, joined in.
“Maybe the teachers are trying to protect us,” she said. “There are
people who do not want us here at all.”
In the last decade, record numbers of immigrants, both legal and
illegal, have fueled the greatest growth in public schools since the
baby boom. The influx has strained many districts’ budgets and
resources and put classrooms on the front lines of America’s battles
over whether and how to assimilate the newcomers and their children.
Inside schools, which are required to enroll students regardless of
their immigration status and are prohibited from even asking about it,
the debate has turned to how best to educate them.
Hylton High, where a reporter for The New York Times spent much of the
past year, is a vivid laboratory. Like thousands of other schools
across the country, it has responded to the surge of immigrants by
channeling them into a school within a school. It is, in effect, a
contemporary form of segregation that provides students learning
English intensive support to meet rising academic standards — and it
also helps keep the peace.
In a nation where most students learning English lag behind other
groups by almost every measure, Hylton’s program stands out for its
students’ high test scores and graduation rates. However, at this
ordinary American high school, in an ordinary American suburb at a
time of extraordinary upheaval, those achievements come with
The calm in the hallways belies resentments simmering among students
who barely know one another. They readily label one another “stupid”
or “racist.” The tensions have at times erupted into walkouts and
cafeteria fights, including one in which immigrant students tore an
American flag off the wall and black students responded by shouting,
“Go back to your own country!”
Hylton’s faculty has been torn over how to educate its immigrant
population. Some say the students are unfairly coddled and should be
forced more quickly into the mainstream. And even those who support
segregating students admit to soul-searching over whether the program
serves the school’s needs at the expense of immigrant students, who
are relentlessly drilled and tutored on material that appears on state
tests but get rare exposure to the kinds of courses, demands or
experiences that might better prepare them to move up in American
“This is hard for us,” said Carolyn Custard, Hylton’s principal. “I’m
not completely convinced we’re right. I don’t want them to be
separated, but at the same time, I want them to succeed.”
Education officials classify some 5.1 million students in the United
States — 1 in 10 of all those enrolled in public schools — as English
language learners, a 60 percent increase from 1995 to 2005.
Researchers give many causes for the gaps between them and other
groups. Perhaps most paradoxical, they say, is that a nation that
prides itself on being a melting pot has yet to reach agreement on the
best way to teach immigrant students.
In recent years, students learning English have flooded into small
towns and suburban school districts that have little experience with
international diversity. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators have
come under increasing pressure to meet the requirements of the federal
No Child Left Behind Act, which links every school’s financing and its
teachers’ jobs to student performance on standardized tests.
The challenges have only intensified with a souring economy and
deepening anger over illegal immigration, provoking many Americans to
question whether those living here unlawfully should be educated at
Across the country, politics is never far from the schoolhouse door.
Arizona, California and Massachusetts adopted English-only education
policies that limited bilingual services. By contrast, school
districts in Georgia and Utah have recruited teachers from Mexico to
work with their swelling Latin American populations.
Near Washington, officials in Frederick County, Md., floated the idea
of challenging federal law by requiring students to disclose whether
they are in the country legally, an idea also proposed by the
authorities in Culpeper County, Va.
Then there is Hylton High School’s home county, Prince William. What
was once a mostly white, middle-class suburb 35 miles southwest of the
nation’s capital has been transformed by a construction boom into a
traffic-choked sprawl of townhouses and strip malls where Latinos are
the fastest-growing group.
Neighborhood disputes led the county to enact laws intended to drive
illegal immigrants away. White and black families with the means to
buy their way out of the turmoil escaped to more affluent areas.
Hispanic families, feeling threatened or just plain unwelcome, were
torn between those who had legal status and those who did not. Many
By last March, educators reported that at least 759 immigrant students
had dropped out of county schools. Hylton, whose 2,200 student
population is almost equal parts white, black and Latino and comes
from working-class apartment complexes and upscale housing
developments, was one of the hardest hit.
The school’s program for English learners — a predominantly Latino
group that includes students from 32 countries who speak 25 languages
— is directed by Ginette Cain, 61, who says she was inspired to teach
immigrant students because she was once one herself.
Petite with a shock of red hair, the daughter of a lumberjack and a
cook, Ms. Cain was the first in her French-Canadian family to master
English when they arrived in Vermont in the 1950s. She served as a
bridge between her parents and their new homeland, helping them in
meetings with landlords, teachers, doctors and bill collectors.
The hostilities that today’s immigrants face, Ms. Cain said, have
shaken her faith in bridges.
“I used to tell my students that they had to stay in school,” Ms. Cain
said, “because eventually the laws would change, they would become
citizens of this country, and they needed their diplomas so they could
make something of themselves as Americans.”
“I don’t tell them that anymore,” she continued. “Now I tell them they
need to get their diplomas because an education will help them no
matter what side of the border they’re on.”
A Crash Program
It was crunch time at Hylton High: 10 minutes until the bell, two
weeks before state standardized tests, and a classroom full of blank
stares suggesting that Ms. Cain still had a lot of history to cover to
get her students ready.
The question hanging in the air: “What is the name for a time of
paranoia in the United States that was sparked by the Bolshevik
“What’s that?” Delmy Gomez, a junior from El Salvador, said with a
grimace that caused his classmates to burst into laughter.
The question might have stumped plenty of high school students. But
for Ms. Cain’s pupils, it might as well have been nuclear physics.
Freda Conteh had missed long stretches of school in war-torn Sierra
Leone. Noemi Caballero, from Mexico, filled notebooks with short
stories and poetry in Spanish, but struggled to compose simple
sentences in English.
Nuwan Gamage, from Sri Lanka, was distracted by working two jobs to
support himself because he found it difficult to live with his mother
and her American husband after spending most of his life apart from
her. And Edvin Estrada, a Guatemalan, worried about a brother in the
Marines, headed off for duty in some undisclosed hot spot.
Few of these students had heard of the Pilgrims, much less the history
of Thanksgiving. Idioms like “easy as pie” and “melting pot” were lost
on them. They knew little of the American Revolution, much less the
“American students come to school with a lot of cultural knowledge
that other teachers assume they don’t have to explain because their
kids get it from growing up in this country, watching television or
surfing the Internet,” Ms. Cain said. “I can’t assume any of that.”
Education experts estimate that it takes the average learner of
English at least two years of study to hold conversations, and five to
seven years to write essays, understand a novel or explain scientific
processes at the level of their English-speaking peers.
High schools, the last stop between adolescence and adulthood, do not
have that kind of time. Getting students to graduation often means
catching them up to a field that has a 15-year head start.
In recent decades, some degree of segregation has often been involved
in teaching immigrants. Through the 1980s, schools generally pulled
them out of the mainstream for at least an hour or two each day for
“English as a Second Language” courses that were largely focused on
basic English and vocational training.
As national education standards were adopted in 1989, some school
districts established dual-language programs that allowed students
learning English to study core subjects in their native languages
until they were able to move into mainstream classes. Other districts,
hit by the largest waves of immigrants, established so-called newcomer
schools, where immigrants were clustered to help them adapt to their
new surroundings and develop their English skills before moving on to
When significant numbers of immigrants began arriving in Prince
William County, the school district, like others across the country,
essentially created newcomer schools-within-schools, where students
learning English are placed for all but a few electives like art,
R.O.T.C. or auto mechanics. The goal, educators say, is to give them
intensive attention until they are ready to join mainstream classes.
The reality, experts acknowledge, is that only a few high school
students ever make that jump.
“I would love nothing better than to have my kids in classes all over
the building,” Ms. Cain said. “But you know what would happen to them?
They’d move to the back of the class, then they’d fail, and then
they’d drop out.”
She began building her program — known formally as English for
Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL — in 2001, when she enlisted a
colleague to teach a separate world history class for those learning
Ms. Cain sat in to learn the information, then taught a review class
so her students understood the material well enough to pass state
The following years, she set up similar pairs of classes in earth
science, biology and American history. A Peruvian teacher, who made
fun of his own thick accent so the students would be less
self-conscious about theirs, began teaching algebra and geometry. And
the head of the English department agreed to teach a class that would
help students complete a required research paper.
The curriculum for those learning English covers most of the same
material taught in mainstream classes, except that teachers move more
slowly and rely more on visual aids. Students in Ms. Cain’s program
generally outperform other English learners in the state on
standardized tests, and do as well or better than Hylton’s mainstream
students. Last year, for example, all of the English learners passed
Virginia’s writing exam; by comparison, 97 percent of the general
population passed. In math, 91 percent of Hylton’s ESOL students
passed the exam, the same percentage as other students. And 89 percent
of the English learners passed the history exam, compared with 91
percent of the others.
Teaching to Tests
The consistently good scores turned out by Hylton’s English learners
gave rise to suspicions of cheating a few years ago, which a state
audit concluded were unfounded. But watching the program up close
reveals that certain tricks and shortcuts are built in.
Sample tests are published on the Internet, for example. Ms. Cain
studies them and uses them as guides. “It used to be that we were told
not to teach to the test,” she said. “Now, that’s what everyone tells
us, from state administrators on down.”
“Teachers know what’s going to be on the test,” she added. “And if you
only have a limited amount of time, that’s what you’re going to
Compared with mainstream students, the average English learner at
Hylton spends twice the time with twice the number of teachers on core
subjects needed to graduate. Their classes are light on lectures and
heavy on drills, games and worksheets intended to help them memorize
facts about topics as varied as European monarchies, rock formation
and the workings of the human heart.
At Hylton, freshmen finish Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in a
month, while immigrants pore over it for an entire semester. Most
mainstream students take tests with essay questions on the phases of
the water cycle; the English learners have the option to draw posters,
like one by a Bolivian-born boy who depicted himself as a water
molecule rising from an ice cube, drifting into a cloud and raining
over his homeland.
The immigrant students are given less homework and rarely get failing
grades if they demonstrate good-faith efforts. They are given more
credit for showing what they know in class participation than on
written assignments. And on state standardized tests, they are offered
accommodations unavailable to other students.
Teachers, for example, are allowed to read test questions to them. In
some cases, the students are permitted to respond orally while
teachers record their answers.
In Ms. Cain’s 90-minute history review classes, which can touch on
topics from the reign of Marie Antoinette to the Iraq war, getting
ready for tests often seems the sole objective. Ms. Cain routinely
interrupts discussions to emphasize potential questions.
“Write this down,” she told a class one day. “There’s always a
question about Huguenots.”
Significant historical episodes are often reduced to little more than
sound bites. “You don’t really need to know anything more about the
Battle of Britain, except that it was an air strike,” Ms. Cain told
one class. “If you see a question about the Battle of Britain on the
test, look for an answer that refers to air strikes.”
Often, she manages to combine her test tips with comparisons to
historical struggles and the ones her students face today. That is how
she taught them about the aftershocks of the Bolshevik Revolution. The
period of paranoia that gripped the United States, she told students,
was known as the Red Scare.
“If you see a question about Bolsheviks on the test,” Ms. Cain said,
“the answer is probably Red Scare.”
Unsatisfied, Delmy asked whether Americans were right to have been
afraid of a Communist invasion.
“This kind of fear has happened a few times in our history,” Ms. Cain
said. “You know, where we blame foreigners for our problems, for
wrecking the economy, for stealing our jobs. You see where I’m going?”
Melting Pot/Pressure Cooker
Like so many other suburban communities transformed by immigration,
Prince William County was overwhelmed as much by the pace of the
change as by its scale.
In a blink of history’s eye, this commuter community became one of the
12 fastest-growing counties in the country, with a Hispanic population
that surged to 19 percent from 2 percent, far outpacing growth by any
other group since 1980. The enrollment of children with limited
proficiency in English grew 219 percent. The county, the scene of some
of the first skirmishes of the Civil War, became a battleground again.
Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the all-white, predominantly Republican
Board of Supervisors, led the cause of those who argued that illegal
immigrants — an estimated 30 percent of all those moving into the
county — were an undue burden on taxpayers. It cost Prince William
$40.2 million, about 5 percent of the school budget, to provide
additional services to students with limited English last year, for
Mr. Stewart ordered his staff to identify services the county could
deny to illegal immigrants. And he was a co-author of an ordinance
that would have allowed the county police to check the immigration
status of anyone they stopped whom they also suspected of living in
the country illegally. (The authorities later backed off, limiting the
police to checking the status of anyone arrested.)
“We didn’t set out to pass a law addressing immigration,” Mr. Stewart
said in an interview. “We wanted to address issues involving problems
in housing, in hospitals, in schools and with crime. And we found that
when we looked at all those areas, illegal immigration was driving a
lot of the problems.”
In neighborhoods, however, many people did not make distinctions
between legal and illegal immigrants. Some residents complained of a
“foreign invasion.” Constructive dialogue was often drowned out by
hate-filled blogs, headlines and protests. And school boundaries were
bitterly contested, with some families moving their children into
schools with lower populations of immigrants, and others flexing their
political influence to try to keep the immigrants out.
Many parents worried that the Latino influx strained schools’
resources, eroding the quality of their children’s education.
“I have no problem with immigrants,” said Lori Bauckman-Moore, a
mother of five who said her mother came through Ellis Island. “But so
many of these kids don’t speak English. I’m talking fourth, fifth and
sixth grades, where half of the kids don’t understand what their
teachers are telling them. How can my child learn when teachers have
to spend most of their time focused on the kids who cannot keep up
with the curriculum?”
At Hylton, Ms. Cain’s school-within-a-school began to feel like a
bunker. Two brothers from El Salvador vented in class about always
having to look over their shoulders, and then stopped coming to
school. A boy from Mexico disappeared, calling a month later to ask
Ms. Cain to send his transcripts to Houston.
Eventually the tumult threatened the teacher’s pet: Jorge Rosales, a
shy, strapping Mexican who wore gel in his hair and a medallion of the
Virgin of Guadalupe around his neck.
When Jorge arrived at Hylton his sophomore year, he was reading at a
sixth-grade level and failing most classes. Two years later, he was
playing on the soccer team and on his way to graduating with honors.
But early last year, six months from getting his diploma, Jorge told
Ms. Cain his father had lost his construction job, his parents had
fallen behind in their mortgage payments, and, since no one in the
Rosales family was in the country legally, his mother lived in fear
that a minor traffic infraction could lead to deportation.
Ms. Cain called each member of the County Board of Supervisors and
told them the crackdown was infringing on immigrant students’ rights
to an education. “They told me I was the only person calling to
complain,” she said. “All their other calls were from people who
supported what they were doing.”
Before long, the polarization outside Hylton reinforced the divide
between the two groups of students inside the school.
Teachers set the tone. In their classrooms, some tiptoed around the
immigration debate or avoided it altogether. Advisers to student
groups created to examine pressing issues — including the school
newspaper, the Model United Nations and the World of Difference Club —
similarly ignored the matter. And the teachers for those learning
English made little effort to organize activities that would bring
them and mainstream students together.
“To create a positive environment for my kids,” Ms. Cain said, “I’ve
had to control who they’re exposed to.”
The silence and separation fueled an us-versus-them dynamic. The
president of Hylton’s parent-teacher-student organization recalled her
daughter complaining about an immigrant student wearing a T-shirt that
said, “They Can’t Deport Us All.” A Peruvian mother remembered her son
coming home and asking, “Are we legal?”
When asked why they did not have any friends among the immigrant
students, some mainstream students responded by mentioning a worker
who did not finish a job their parents had paid for, or a line of
pregnant women at the clinic where their mother works, or a gang
member who stole a friend’s books.
“I identify with the people I hang around with,” said an editor of the
student newspaper, who is not named because she spoke without her
parents’ permission. “My friends’ parents are not cashiers or people
who wash dishes.”
When Ms. Cain’s students are asked why they have not made friends
outside their group, they often tell stories about a customer who
cursed at them while they were working at McDonald’s, or an employer
who cheated their father of his wages, or a student who told them to
stop speaking Spanish on the school bus.
Romina Benitez Aguero said that a neighbor greeted her cheerfully on
the street, but that the woman’s daughters — both Hylton students —
And Francisco Espinal, from Honduras, said a teacher once shouted at
him for running in the halls. “This is not your country,” he recalled
the teacher saying. “You are in America now.”
Costs Versus Benefits
The more Amalia Raymundo goes to school, the more she feels her
options narrowing. She was a rising star in her remote village in
Guatemala, the region’s beauty queen and a candidate for college
scholarships. But she came to this country two years ago to get to
know a mother she had not seen since she was a baby, with the belief
that an American education would help her fulfill her dreams of
She works hard to make all A’s. But this year, she started to wonder
whether the work was worth it, and she nearly dropped out.
Amalia’s classes are all in English. Still, Amalia, 19, worries that
because she spends most of her school day speaking Spanish with other
students, and then with her parents at home, it could be years before
she is able to speak, read and write English fluently enough to
compete for college.
It means she has had little access to peers and networks that might
help her learn to better navigate her new country, apply for
scholarships, make her own MySpace page or drive a car. She lives an
hour’s drive from Washington, but has visited only once, on a field
trip with other immigrant students.
“If I am going to end up cleaning houses with my mother,” Amalia said
to explain why she almost quit Hylton, “why go to high school?”
Hylton’s program has become a source of pride for helping immigrant
students succeed in school, but also a target of criticism that
segregated classes have handicapped students by isolating them and
“dumbing down” the curriculum.
“High schools have to make a pragmatic choice when it comes to these
kids,” said Peter B. Bedford, a history teacher who supports the
program. “Are you going to focus on educating them, or socially
“This school has made the choice to focus on education,” he added.
“The best tools we can give them to function in this society are their
But Amy Weiler, an assistant principal, worried whether the program
had turned high school into more of an end than a beginning. “If you
ask whether our program is successful at getting our students to pass
tests, the data would indicate that it is,” Ms. Weiler said. “But if
you ask whether we are helping our students to assimilate, there’s no
data to answer that question.”
“My fear,” she added, “is that if we take a look at where our ESOL
students are 10 years from now, we’re going to be disappointed.”
Studies suggest that English learners in separate, so-called sheltered
classrooms perform better in school than do the majority of their
peers who are immersed in the mainstream with little or no language
support. There has been no systematic tracking, however, of English
learners beyond graduation to determine whether schools are leveling
playing fields or perpetuating the inequalities of a stratified
Some students, of course, successfully climb into the middle class and
beyond, as generations of immigrants before them have. But Hispanic
college graduation rates — 16 percent of 25- to 29-year-old Hispanics
born in the United States hold a college degree, compared with 34
percent of whites and 62 percent of Asian-Americans — suggest that
many recent immigrants and their children are not going to college.
Ms. Cain’s anecdotal evidence bears that out. A handful of her
students go on to four-year colleges, while others enroll in community
colleges or join the armed services. The majority, however, eventually
move into the same low-skilled jobs as their parents.
“I love hearing from my students,” Ms. Cain said. “But then again, I
don’t, because I usually don’t hear what I had hoped.”
Those hopes, for example, had propelled Ms. Cain’s star student,
Jorge, to graduation. After his family moved to Alexandria, she
adjusted his schedule so his mother could drive him the hour to
He loved Hylton, he recalled in an interview. “It is the only place
where everybody has the same chance,” he said. But now, without enough
money for college — and English skills still so weak that completing
community college seems a much more daunting prospect — he installs
drywall with his father.
He still remembers the architectural design class he took at Hylton
and the ambitions to become a foreman it inspired. “Sometimes when I
see the floor plans,” he said wistfully, “I think about high school.”
Amalia, who once thought about becoming a doctor, has also learned to
adjust her sights. “When I came to this country, I had my bags packed
with dreams,” she said. “Now I see my dreams are limited.”
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