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Immigrant Children Lost in Education Reform

New America Media, Q&A, Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen Posted: Oct 28, 2009

Ruby Takanishi, president and chief executive officer of Foundation for Child Development, recently co-edited a new book titled, Immigration, Diversity and Education, with Elena L. Grigorenko. She spoke with New America Media Education Editor Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen about the current challenges facing immigrant children in the United States and the reforms needed to support their future health, wellbeing, and academic success.

Do you feel like the new administration has adequately addressed immigrant childrens issues thus far?

No. The fact of the matter is that immigrant children are not on anybodys agenda, except in a negative way. First of all, there has already been a decision to exclude many immigrant children and their families from public health insurance access. There is also very little discussion in the education initiatives being presented, including the Race To The Top funds, the stimulus funds, and even the No Child Left Behind policy. The opportunities for doing positive social policy is not evident.

I would say that in terms of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement tactics, it does seem to be that the shift from going after employees to going after employers would be less traumatic to children.Thats not to say that undocumented workers wont still lose their jobs, but at least their parents wont disappear. I understand that they are trying to change some of their practices of detaining families in detention facilities, so thats certainly encouraging. But overall, I personally have been very disappointed that the administration had opportunities to do positive things for children of immigrants, but hasnt done anything so far.

Do you think the stimulus money has the potential to make an impact on access and quality of preschool and elementary school for immigrant children?

Im not sure that it will have those effects because the stimulus money right now, in terms of pre-k, child care, et cetera, is really trying not to expand, but just sustain or make up for the lack of state funding.

What are the education reforms you would like to see under this administration, to help ensure academic success and health of immigrant children?

I am a very strong supporter of dual language programs. Research would indicate that its very important for young children to have a solid foundation in their home language as they develop a second language. If done well, dual language programs are a win-win situation. If immigrant children are with students whose first language is English, they can also learn another language at an early age. We may be one of the few countries in the economically advanced world that is monolingual. And dual or multi-language capacity is essential in a global economy.

The second thing thats really important is for immigrant children to have equal access to high quality pre-K programs. The reasons why not everyone does include the availability of programs in their communities, the availability of programs that parents feel are supportive of their cultural values, and the cost. Because we have a largely private system, families shoulder costs. So if you dont have much income, you cannot spend money on pre-K programs even if you would like to. Pre-K helps with acquisition of second language, and an early and good start to education.

Two of the essays in your book conclude that parental participation is a strong enhancing factor in academic growth for immigrant children. Why does it make such a difference in early education?

What is most crucial is that parents communicate to their children the value and importance of engaging and investing in the hard work of education. Different immigrant groups do this in different ways, depending on whether they are educated and affluent, or whether they come poorly educated or not educated at a high level.

There are parents who can do things like buying and reading books, taking music lessons, going to museums, and going to second language class. Even so, there are ways they can let their children know that education is important, and hook them up with individuals and organizations that could be helpful to them.

Different immigrant groups have different amounts of social capital. Some immigrant groups are very well organized to do this, others are not. In the groups that don't have enough social capital, its an opportunity for other immigrant serving organizations to step in and fill that gap.

Whats the best way that immigrant parents can effectively advocate for their children in pre-K and elementary school?

In the best of worlds, you want every parent to be an advocate for their child. Different immigrant groups have different ideas with respect to that role. Some groups have a cultural experience that says, I bring the child to school and the school will educate the child. But in American society, especially in low-income areas, that may not be a good position to have. So how do you assist families that dont have a tradition of advocacy for their children?

One of the things I saw in Chicago is that community organizations work with parents to engage them in the schools in a number of different ways. This includes training parents to work in the classrooms so they have a better sense of what is going on in the schools, and then using those experiences to network with and organize parents to advocate for change in the schools.

The discussion about immigrant children is often framed as problem they pose for American society; yet, some of the book disputes this idea. What are the strengths that immigrant children bring to the U.S.?

Some people decry the fact that immigrant students are described in a way that says they are facing so many dificulties. And others describe the immigrant paradox, where immigrant parents have low education and low socio-economic status, but their children become valedictions and are healthier than other children.

What is important when you just look at the basic demographics of the child immigrant population is that its extremely diverse in terms of countries of origin, and the human, social and economic capital that immigrant families bring in to the United States.

What the demographic work is showing is that to think of immigrant children as a monolith is wrong. And its important to think of the rapidity of social change. So on the one hand, we do know that immigrant children, particularly Latino children, are more likely to be born healthier, even more healthy than native-born children. On the other hand, one of the chapters in the book talks about the really alarming rates of obesity among Latino children, even before they reach kindergarten, which have lifelong consequences.

On the one hand, Latino immigrant families were celebrated for the fact that they were more likely to have two-parent households, more than native, but that is eroding fast. The number of single parent Latina families is growing. So one can talk about assets, but it has to be connected with the particular group at a particular point in time.

Another asset is that its really hard to find any immigrant family that doesnt have extremely high aspirations for the education and future of their children. It doesnt matter if they are getting a Ph.D., or if they have less than a fifth grade education. There is an enormous faith and belief in education that may be an important selection factor for the groups that come to the United States instead of going to another country.


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