Where Education and Assimilation Collide

Rusiko Amirejibi-Mullen r.amirejibi-mullen at qmul.ac.uk
Sun Mar 15 14:49:44 UTC 2009

March 15, 2009
Where Education and Assimilation Collide

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  
considerable costs.

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 all.

Political Responses

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  
regular schools.

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 tests.

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 teach.?

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 ?  
snubbed her.

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  
?becoming someone.?

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  
integrating them??

?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 society.

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 school.

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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