By Katherine Pach, Medill, Immigrant Connect

The girl sits in immigration court. She is nine years old and newly arrived in the United States. The judge looks over her case and asks a few questions. The girl answers in Spanish, entirely reliant on the translator in the room. The judge asks if she’s in school and learning English, and the girl enthusiastically nods her head, “Si!”

What must school be like for her? How does she learn in a new and unfamiliar place? What do her teachers do to help her learn?

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in Plyler v Doe that every child living in America has a right to an education, regardless of their immigration status or national origin. But how well does a child learn when they barely speak English? Do immigrant children need special interventions to learn with their U.S.-born peers?

About a year ago, as the Presidential election campaign was just picking up steam, The Washington Post ran a story, “As immigration resurges, U.S. public schools help children find their footing,” that put the number of immigrant students nationwide (defined as children born outside the country and enrolled in U.S. schools for less than three years) at more than 630,000.

In a 2011 article, “Overcoming Language and Cultural Barriers in School: Helping Hispanic Students Acquire Success in Elementary School,” Pauline Ivey focused on the challenges faced by young children in their earliest years of education. Unlike their older, more educated peers, young children “don’t have the context to build upon, or the language to receive new concepts,” Ivey said. Essentially, if a child does not have the language ability to understand a concept in their native language, the chances they will understand it in their second language are slim.

Tied into the challenge of language learning, immigrant children must deal with cultural

(Photo courtesy of Esther Y. Lee and THINKPROGRESS)

challenges. School is the first experience some kids have with people outside their ethnic, immigrant, or language groups. They have to learn quickly how to live in both worlds: the world they come from and the world in which they must learn to survive. Natasha Warikoo, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that immigrant children have to navigate and understand different cultures, but by and large American schools have not caught on to the idea of bridging the gap for their students. American schools tend to focus heavily on the United States, which does not allow students to cultivate their multi-cultural identity, Warikoo said. This leaves kids unsure, searching for an identity by which they can thrive at school.

Some children however, have a solid immigrant identity, and are open about their immigration status, said Janie Carnock, a former second grade teacher and current education policy analyst at New America, a think tank and civic engagement group based in New York.

“They were aware that their families were newcomers and that there were limitations on what that meant,” Carnock said. In the case of one student, whose father had recently been deported, they knew that despite their status, returning to their home country, returning to political turmoil, or poverty, or a place with no opportunities, was not an option.

This identity crisis is not for a lack of trying on the part of individual schools and teachers. Illinois School District 54, which serves the the Chicago suburbs of Schaumburg, Hanover Park and Hoffman Estates, specifically offers eight open enrollment schools designed for bilingual, multicultural, or alternative learning success. In most districts, students must attend the school closest to their home, which can mean either attending a sub-par school or struggling to make ends meet near a better one. In District 54, schools like Campanelli and Ender-Salk Elementary Schools offer dual-language Japanese and Spanish programs. The other six schools offer bilingual classes, disability services, and language immersion programs. Children anywhere in the district can apply to attend any of the open enrollment schools. These schools allow children, immigrant and US-born alike, to keep learning in their home languages and cultures while building skills in new ones.

Recognizing that one in five children now enrolled in a U.S. public school speaks a language other than English at home, and that that ratio is likely to widen, Education Week reported in 2012 on “Educating Immigrant Students a Challenge in U.S., Elsewhere,” that there is no conventional wisdom on how best to educate immigrant youth. The story quoted Delia Pompa of the National Council of La Raza as concluding that no one and no nation has found the perfect educational answer for the influx of immigrants and refugees.

Melissa Swingle teaches at one of the non-open enrollment schools in District 54, where all her students come from the neighborhoods surrounding the school. Without the specific focus on a single language or culture, she sees a wider range of students from different countries and ethnic groups. In her combined third and fourth grade class, she has seven students enrolled as English Language Learners. According to the National Center for Education Statistic, there were over 4.3 million students enrolled in English learning programs during the 2013-2014 school year, meaning their English skills were far enough behind their peers to require individual services.

“They don’t all have the same needs or are in the same place,” Swingle said. Each case is different, and each child requires different attention and intervention. Some students need individual instruction in the general education classroom, while others need to be pulled out of the classroom several times a day for intensive assistance.

With students like this, one of the biggest challenges to a teacher is giving them the self confidence to take language risks, Swingle said. Without taking these risks, they can’t learn to correct their mistakes and grow in their language acquisition. It’s hard enough raising a hand in class. It’s much harder when you don’t have the language available to answer the question.

“They have the ideas in their head, but they can’t think of the words they need,” Swingle said. For one of her students with minimal English skills, “it’s hard to assess how much he’s understanding. Just because he’s not able to verbalize how much he’s understanding doesn’t mean he’s not soaking it in.”

This is a part of what Swingle calls a “silence period.” Children who are new to the country or language often go through a period in which they don’t really speak in class, Swingle said. They’re worried about cultural differences and language barriers: not being able to say what they’re thinking or feeling in a way that makes sense and is appropriate for their American school.

Giving kids the opportunity, confidence and freedom to talk about their own culture and language with their American, English-speaking peers might be the key to helping end the “silence period” and allowing children to not just scrape by with an unequal education but truly thrive. Open enrollment affords children and their families an opportunity at a quality education without forcing them into a new zip code.

While teaching English and making sure children can understand the country around them is a primary goal, keeping kids connected to their home language and culture is also extremely important, Swingle said. It benefits all of the kids, not just those who are immigrants and English Language Learners. They all benefit from learning from each other about each other.

Part of teaching children in the midst of learning a new language is engaging with their family.

“There needs to be a more intentional effort to reach those families,” Carnock said. As much as local policy and legislation might try, “at the end of the day, the teacher is going to interface with parents in a way that districts and documents can’t.”

Facing a new school is never easy. Facing that new school in a new place and a foreign language is even harder. Children face stereotypes, identity crises and language insecurity, but they are also resilient. Given access to services and opportunities to succeed, immigrant children can prosper just as well as students whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower. The deciding factor is giving kids this access. Children from different cultural, ethnic and language groups have different needs. Instead of forcing them to learn like U.S.-born English speakers, some states, districts and schools recognize those needs and are adopting policies and curricula to address them and help those students thrive, whether documented or not.