Over the past quarter century, a wave of immigration from Latin America, legal and illegal, has caused a divisive political debate in the United States on how to address its various implications. As our nation wrestles with the immigration issue more broadly, a concern raised across the political spectrum is how the public schools can best educate immigrant students. The debate is further polarized by differing views on assimilation of Hispanic immigrants.
Some wonder whether these immigrants will ever learn English and assimilate into American society, as past immigrants have done. Others question whether pushing America’s newest arrivals toward assimilation is even a good thing.
Unlike the experience of past immigrants, for today’s millions of Hispanic children the public schools no longer serve as the mechanism for their assimilation as Americans. Never mind that immigrants continue to chase the classic American dream. Never mind our nation’s motto, E pluribus unum (of many, one). Assimilation, Americanization, and patriotism seem to have no place in the academic lexicon of our nation’s public schools.
This is bad for our country and worse for immigrants and their children, especially for the growing Hispanic community. Isolating people is never a good strategy for building communities, cities, or a country.
Schools Should Play a Key Role
As was the case with previous immigrant groups, Hispanic immigration carries a set of serious challenges that will test our community’s ability to prosper in the United States. Deep investments in family, civic involvement, and, especially, in the education of our youth will be the key to our success.
America offers its citizenry opportunities for success, not guarantees. No one understands this more than immigrants who seek those opportunities every day. But to have access to those opportunities, immigrants need to be well positioned through deliberate assimilation strategies, specifically, through attending great public schools. This means more than the usual “safety net” of specialized services and demands a fresh approach that rejects a “victim” mentality.
A successful assimilation school model does not have to be unique to immigrant children. A quality public school that emphasizes civic responsibility and good citizenship will suffice to transition immigrants successfully, challenging them and the rest of us on our joint commitment to the welfare of our nation.
Key to this model is understanding the role that public schools play, not only in educating our youth, but also in serving as the mediating institution to successfully transition immigrant families into the American way of life, into making American values, culture, norms, and language their own. All American public schools ought to serve such a purpose, as they once did. Public schools can serve as powerful anchors to local communities, instituting a cycle of achievement and self-development at the grassroots level and instructing immigrants on the expectations placed on them as participants in American society.
Focus on Citizenship
Some will argue for a highly specialized program, curriculum, and staffing to educate Hispanic immigrant children. I beg to differ. There is no better cure for the social ills of our community and no better process for the education of an immigrant class than providing a great teacher, a core curriculum, a disciplined school culture, and strong accountability. These are sorely missing in America’s public schools, hurting all children, especially immigrant students.
Hispanic immigrant children need better public schools built around a curriculum that emphasizes American civics and citizenship. If a civics program is important for our nation’s future leaders across the board and to our democracy, it is more so for an immigrant community that is in a state of transition and whose youth struggle with issues of identity and belonging.
Our nation needs to recommit to the idea of building “one-nation … indivisible,” and the public school system should be central to this strategy. Unfortunately, there is no national will to welcome and integrate immigrant families into the American mainstream. Our willingness to wave the white flag on the words “assimilation” and “Americanization” not only weakens our ability to build on the indomitable spirit of immigrants, but also gives a pass to a gang and high school–dropout subculture among our youth that frightens both immigrant families and middle-class Americans, who worry about the welfare and future of their nation. The gang violence that plagues many of our communities and its schools is not inherent to Hispanics; it is a downward spiral version of American assimilation taking hold.
I recognize that any intentional “Americanization” effort is perceived in some quarters as denying people the right to maintain their heritage. Let’s be clear: these concepts of “Americanization” and “assimilation” do not demand the sacrifice of immigrant culture, history, language, and tradition. Our society and its schools ought to celebrate the rich history of our communities and aim to build on immigrant experiences to produce the latest example of an American success story.
The UNO Model
The United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), the community group that I lead in Chicago, and its network of charter schools provide Hispanic immigrant families with access to a high-quality education, thereby challenging them to fulfill their great potential while promoting American values, ideals, and our collective successes. Ours are not Hispanic schools; they are classic American schools, which serve all its students, including Hispanic immigrant children.
Immigrants and native-born Americans alike recognize English as a unifying feature of American society and as a key to immigrant advancement. Poor English-language skills not only delay full assimilation for our community, but also deny Hispanics full access to American opportunity. UNO chose English-language immersion over the traditional bilingual transition program to teach English to its children and families.
Structured English-language immersion challenges the conventional approach to educating English language learners (ELL). Our students’ limited English-language skills could easily be used as an excuse for low performance or a need for unlimited resources, but we see it as a necessity for teachers to differentiate their instruction to reach all learners, including ELL students. Most pragmatically, English immersion is effective in closing the performance gap between ELLs and their peers nationwide, and is financially viable and scalable—unlike the many bilingual transition programs that require untenable complements of teachers and resources and produce mixed results at best.
I believe, and our schools’ performance bears this out, that a well-rounded, rigorous program with excellent teachers and leaders works with any population of students, and works especially well for Hispanic immigrant children. UNO’s approximately 6,500 students are 95 percent Hispanic, 93 percent low-income, and 38 percent ELL (far exceeding the Chicago school average of 16 percent).Yet our schools consistently outperform the Chicago Public Schools on state tests (see Figure 1).
Events such as Election Day mock voting, Veteran’s Day Memorial program, and our 9/11 Remembrance take place throughout the year and are integrated into our rich curriculum, which includes classes in physical education, music, Spanish, art, and technology in addition to the core subjects of reading, math, science, and social studies. Our high-school students are required to take four years of Mandarin language class. Successful outcomes for UNO’s 13 charter schools include high-school and college readiness, as well as critical-thinking skills.
UNO’s approach is rooted in our unwavering high expectations for everyone, and in commonsense decisions grounded in data. For example, we extended our school day to 7.5 hours and lengthened the school year to 191 instructional days to ensure that all students receive adequate and quality instructional time. Student data on our interim assessments clearly showed a drastic annual “summer slide” that took until December to make up. To combat the slide, we serve as a model for districts across the country by employing a hybrid year-round calendar that shortens the summer to just five weeks. Our data suggest that after the first year on this new calendar, the slide has been eliminated in mathematics and drastically reduced in reading.
We believe in holding ourselves accountable. This year we are implementing a new performance-management framework for teachers that will provide them with comprehensive data on areas of strength and areas that need development, as well as reward high-performing teachers with bonuses as large as $14,000. This system combines important qualitative practice scores, quantitative growth and achievement data, school and network factors, as well as a community and parent engagement factor.
UNO’s success also depends on building a strong, stable relationship between home and school. Throughout our organization, from our teachers to me, we are responsible for partnering with parents to produce great outcomes for students. We expect much from our students’ parents. UNO teachers conduct two home visits each year to create the trust necessary for us to challenge families and be challenged in return. For immigrant parents who value the “Maestra” (Spanish for master or teacher), home visits reinforce the value of education.
Simply put, the facets of a quality school model with high expectations will work for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or immigrant or socioeconomic status. The absence of high-performing public schools, and the lack of emphasis on American civics or expectations for good citizenship, will hurt our nation’s youth and will certainly handicap our Hispanic immigrant students and their families most by impeding the assimilation process.
The good news is that we have seen this story before in our nation’s history with great outcomes. Hispanic immigrants are not unique to this narrative. It is, however, a uniquely American story being reenacted with new protagonists.