The News Service
Virginia M.C. da Mota
Let us leave no immigrant child behind!
Given that educating English language learners requires an investment in special programming – in a time when resources are shrinking– programs and services specifically designed for this student population may suffer the deepest cuts. While investments in educating English language learners have a current cost, that cost is small when compared to the future cost of failing to do so.
Our country has always been a land of immigrants, and the acculturation or assimilation of new cultures and languages has always been challenging. It is no less so today. Indeed, one could even argue that our most recent immigrants and refugees face greater social, economic and political obstacles than those of past generations. I seriously hope that our sense of social justice and responsibility to incorporate these newcomers into our society continues so that we can all reap the benefits of cultural diversity, which in the long run will position us for our rapidly evolving global society. If nothing else, investing the resources necessary to educate all newcomers to realize their potential is simply a good economic strategy.
Children of immigrants are the fastest growing school-age population in the United States. Equal educational opportunity for all students has long been a goal of public education. However, achieving true equality of educational opportunity for immigrant children – or for children born in this country but whose families speak little or no English – has always been a difficult task. Indeed, the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 adds even more stress to schools that fail to provide these English language learning students with opportunities to achieve high academic standards.
During the last ten years, Rhode Island has seen a dramatic increase in newly arrived immigrant families. Many children from these families enter our schools with extremely limited educational experiences. Many of these children are also experiencing the emotional and psychological effects of assimilation compounded by the deficiencies and disadvantages which accompany low socio-economic living conditions (e.g., poor health and lack of health insurance, poor and crowded housing, high mobility rates, etc.). According to the data presented in the 2004 Rhode Island KIDS COUNT Factbook, in 2003 there were 30,176 Rhode Island households with children under age 18 headed by immigrants. This is the population most likely to be undercounted.
Although 62 percent of our immigrant population lives in the core cities, the Limited English Proficient student census maintained by the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reveals that English language learners are enrolled in 30 local school districts and three charter schools.
Given that educating English language learners requires an investment in special programming – in a time when resources are shrinking – I am concerned that programs and services specifically designed for this student population will suffer the deepest cuts. While investments in educating English language learners have a current cost, that cost is small when compared to the future cost of failing to do so – increasing dropout, unemployment and incarceration rates.
The federal and state laws that protect the rights of English language learners are predicated on the principle of local control. Allowing administrators, parents and the teachers closest to the children to choose the most effective approach for teaching these students is certainly good practice but only if all the key stakeholders can truly have a constructive discussion about second language acquisition pedagogy. This is one of the most controversial areas in public education both in Rhode Island and across the nation.
Perhaps the most formidable barrier to using what we know from the second language acquisition research and best practices is a pervasive and mistaken set of beliefs about English language learners. Too often, we have interpreted the students’ cultural and language differences as deficits and disadvantages. These differences have in turn been used to disenfranchise or to limit access to the full range of resources available in our schools. These misconceptions have also at times led to the design of English as a second language programs that are remedial rather than developmental, as well as the design of bilingual programs that emphasize transition to English rather than build proficiency in English and native languages.
Unfortunately, public indifference and apathy is also a significant contributing factor to the controversy surrounding the education of English language learners. One unduly prevalent attitude is reflected in the belief that previous generations succeeded without programs targeted to English language learners, so there is no need to provide specialized programming to the current generation of ELL students.
I call on all educational (grades pre-K through 16) and political leaders to commit to the full spirit of the No Child Left Behind Act by ensuring that all English language learners have access to high quality educational programs and services that will enable them to reach their full potential. Let us not forget that this is both consistent with our democratic principles and a solid economic and sociologic investment in our collective future.