Asian Parents and Students Face Challenge of Diversity

Douwei Times, News Feature, By Hubert Lu, Translated by Peter Schurmann Posted: Jul 01, 2007

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Supreme Court struck down voluntary school desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., because they use race to assign some students to schools in an attempt to avoid racial isolation. For many Asian-American students, self-segregation is a part of their high school life. Meanwhile, Asian-American parents navigate between the choice of sending their children to the best school and ensuring that their children can adapt to a diverse society.

NEW YORK -- Population trends indicate that by 2050, no one ethnicity will comprise more than 50 percent of the overall population in the United States. But does diversity necessarily mean greater equality and improved integration among ethnicities?

“They Don’t Understand Us”

Lewis Chen is an 11th grader at New York’s Benjamin N. Cardozo High School where no one ethnic group is a majority. Nevertheless, Chen says he and his Asian friends are ignored by the African-American and Latino students. “Most of the time,” says Chen, “they act like we don’t exist.”

Chen says he thinks this is because there is little understanding between the groups.

“Nearly all of my close friends are Asian,” says Chen. “It’s been like this since I’ve been in school.” He says that while this sounds discriminatory, it reflects the reality of the situation.

During class, while students are in the same room, they naturally discuss homework with each other, but apart from this there is almost no other interaction between ethnic groups. At lunch, each group sits apart, none of them socializing with the other. Whenever there is some conflict between students from different groups, security guards will be there to separate them and remove them from the cafeteria. Teachers at the high school are well-aware of the situation and try to encourage students to socialize more, but they also realize they can’t force this to happen.

“I think African-American students have a certain perception of Asian students. They assume our parents all stress education, that they have the money to pay for music lessons. They think we all get good grades, and that we will all get into a good college, and that this is why we hang out together,” Chen says.

Liang Xiao Yan is a mother of three who immigrated from China’s Guangdong province to the United States 20 years ago, settling in San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley. Her eldest is in the 12th grade, while the younger two are in the eighth and fourth grades respectively. She says that when she arrived the neighborhood was predominantly African-American, but that in recent years there’s been an influx of immigrants from Asia that have settled in the community. She is the current president of her neighborhood’s Chinese association.

Liang’s three children attend different schools in different districts. In an effort to bring her children to the best schools while making sure they have a diverse education experience, Liang must contend with the city’s policy that assigns some students to schools out of their neighborhood.

For students entering elementary, middle, or high school in the San Francisco Unified School District, parents must first fill out a registration form on which they designate their top seven preferences. Naturally, most parents select the top performing schools. Admission involves comparative testing between students, individual grades, extracurricular activities, family background and ethnicity, among other factors that determine a student’s eligibility for a particular school. As part of this process, school administrators try to assure equal representation among the various ethnic groups. The next step involves assigning eligible students lottery numbers.

Liang says when her eldest went through this process he had no choice but to attend the school closest to home. At that time, says Liang, she felt some concern for her son’s education and safety. Liang’s second oldest son travels two hours to his school, with several stops along the way. The youngest in the family attends the neighborhood elementary school.

Liang feels most of the problems occur when registering for high school. The best high schools are in the western part of the city, she says, where Asian students make up nearly 30 percent of the population, and where there is a strong Chinese presence in the community. School authorities, however, encourage diversity in schools. In these neighborhoods where grades tend to be higher than average, school authorities guarantee a percentage of admissions to students whose parents live in these neighborhoods. The remainder is determined by lottery, with students from throughout the city gaining admittance. This leaves many Chinese parents living in these neighborhoods unsatisfied.

Though she wants her children to have the best education, Liang also says that diversity is important in schools. Liang recalls that when her eldest daughter was in elementary school, although the majority of the school was African-American, most of her friends were Asian. Her son’s elementary school, however, was more diverse, with the majority of students being either African-American, Latino, or Asian. As a result, says Liang, her son has friends from all these backgrounds. Liang says she supports the school district’s policy of diversity because she feels it helps kids integrate better into society.

Liang’s daughter is waiting to hear which high school she’s been admitted to. Liang says that while the quality of San Francisco’s public schools has improved in the last few years, the problem is that the quality of individual schools remains uneven. She says she hopes that in the future the quality of all of San Francisco’s public schools will be the same. The quality of education for Asian students depends on diversity.

Khin Mai Aung, an attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, says that measures aimed at increasing diversity in schools are sometimes misused, but she adds this does not mean these measures are wrong. She cites a 2004 study conducted by the Youth Violence Prevention Center at Harvard University, which showed that statistically Asians were the most vulnerable to violent attack on school campuses. Within this group, newly arrived immigrants with limited English ability were particularly prone to abuse. Due to such high rates of abuse, in Boston the absentee rate among Asians topped out at 80 percent above that of White students, driven by concerns over personal safety. The report also noted that the dropout rate in more diverse schools is relatively lower.

In a school that is not diverse, when students enter into society they tend not to trust members from different ethnicities. School diversity offers numerous advantages to Asian students, allowing them to understand the diverse backgrounds of society. Aung says she believes diversity creates opportunities for better education for not just Asians, but African-American and Latino students as well.

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