Carolyn Goossen

Why One Undocumented Student is Walking the Trail of Dreams

Four students who were brought to the United States by their families when they were young and are still undocumented are walking 1,500 miles from their homes in Miami, Fla. to Washington, D.C., to ask for immigration reform. Carlos Roa, 22, is one of the four Trail of Dreams walkers who are calling for the implementation of The Dream Act, federal legislation that would give undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children a pathway to citizenship after completing college. It would also give them access to private loans, to help pay for their university education. Carlos arrived in the United States at the age of 2 and has been living here for 20 years without documents. He spoke with NAM editor Carolyn Goossen.

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Unique High School for Immigrants Offers Real Chance to Join Society

Thi Bui's world history class at Internationals High School in Oakland is buzzing with nervous energy. Her ninth graders are about to have a verbal quiz on what they've learned so far about the Mexican Revolution -- in English.

This routine-sounding activity is actually a very daunting one for her students, some of whom have been in the country for just two or three months. A few can barely utter a full sentence in English, and others are not even literate in their home languages. To prepare for the quiz, Bui asked the students to take turns testing each other on the material.

"Who is Pancho Villa?" asks Asmahan, 14, a rosy-cheeked young woman from Yemen cloaked in a hijab.

"Ahhhhhmmmm," mutters Huo Jie, 18, her classmate who arrived a few months before from rural southern China.

"When was the Mexican Revolution?" she presses.

Huo Jie scratches his head, and smiles sheepishly. He nods gratefully when she offers him the answers. She slowly repeats the phrases and waits patiently as he sounds out the difficult words.

The school's mission is to teach students targeted English in all of their courses, provide them with an intimate learning environment and caring teachers, and in four years time, send them off to college.

"The key to success for newcomers, is English. If they don't have that, they can't communicate, they can't apply for a job, and they are completely handicapped," says Rahim Aurang, executive director of Bay Area Immigrant and Refugee Services. He sees this school as a symbol of hope, in a climate that is increasingly hostile to immigrants and refugees "But if they are given the opportunity to learn, this younger generation can and will learn. In Afghanistan, we have a saying: 'If you open a school, you are closing a jail.' We need to have more schools for these newcomers, more opportunities."

The school is also committed to helping students take ownership of the new culture they find themselves in. There is a bicycle club, where students borrow bikes to explore Oakland and other Bay Area neighborhoods, and an after-school hip hop dance class led by a local performer.

Half the students at Oakland Internationals High School are from Latin America, 30 percent are from Asia, and the rest are from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Twenty percent are refugees, and many have had interrupted formal education -- meaning they've been out of school for a year or more. Many are also undocumented.

At first glance, history class seems loud and chaotic. But Bui stands calmly in the middle of it all -- testing individual students with an encouraging smile while calling out commands to various pairs of students throughout the classroom.

Thi Bui was herself a refugee from Vietnam. She was a baby when she fled the country by boat in 1978 with her family. Once here, her mother - a former teacher -- worked several minimum wage jobs to support the family. Bui talks about the mediocre public schools she attended and the history classes she despised.

"I still have a lot of resentment about the quality of my education," she says laughing. "It's what inspired me to go into teaching."

She started the semester by asking her students to do power point presentations about their home countries. For some students, this was their first time using a computer, and Bui and other faculty stayed after school to teach them how to surf the net, find and crop images, and write simple text.

"A typical immigrant who comes to Oakland or any district tends to be programmed into one English Language Development class," explains Oakland International High School Principal, Carmelita Reyes. "They might have the class for one hour a day. If you immigrate when you are 14 years old and you are only given an hour a day [of focused English language development] there is no way you can pass a high school exit exam at the end of high school."

When the school opened in September 2007, it was with a ninth grade class of 100 students. In four years time, they hope to have all the grades and 400 students.

The Internationals High School model originated in New York City, where nine schools have opened within the last 22 years. The Oakland school is the first Internationals High School branch outside of New York. In New York, they have graduated 65 percent of their students in four years, compared to 33 percent for the English Language learners in regular schools. And over 90 percent of their graduates have gone on to higher education. So the model has been shown to effectively support recent immigrants there. But Oakland presents a new set of challenges.

California is 46th in the country in per pupil spending. New York actually spends 75 percent more per student. And research released last week by the California Drop Out Research Project estimates that only two thirds of high school students graduate, and among students learning English, it's one in two. Students learning English make up 30 percent of all drop outs in California, although they only make up 15 percent of the high school student population.

In Oakland, the ninth graders don't have older classmen to look up to, who they would see preparing for college, and over 50 percent of them come from rural communities in Mexico and other countries where college has never been even a remote possibility.

Thi worries about her ability, and the school's ability -- to get students to imagine college as an option. But in December, she and other teachers at the school were given the opportunity to go to New York and visit and tour the Internationals High Schools there, and she returned with a renewed optimism.

"I feel re-invigorated my goal is to get them to write essays this year, and I feel like it's possible," she says.

Blaming the Victims

Editor's Note: John Rogers is Associate Director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA), a research center at UCLA that examines key policy issues affecting equity and access within California's educational system. He spoke with Carolyn Goossen, education writer for NCM, about why IDEA opposes the High School Exit Exam and the consequences it may have for students learning English and minority students.

Q: Why are African-American and Latino kids failing the High School Exit Exam in larger numbers than other groups?

A: African-American and Latino students are far more likely than any other group in the state to attend schools that lack qualified teachers, space and instructional materials. Take, for example, the eight high schools in South Los Angeles. More than 99 percent of the students in those high schools are African-American or Latino. More than one-third of the teachers at these schools lack a full teaching credential. Two-thirds of the math teachers are not credentialed to teach math. Because most of these schools are dramatically overcrowded, they use a year-round calendar that provides students with 17 days fewer instruction each year than other high schools in the state. And, students attending these high schools came from South Los Angeles middle schools with similar shortages of qualified teachers and overcrowding.

Q: Statistics say that 85 percent of English learners in this state are Latino students. Does this also have an impact on the results?

A: Yes, many of the Latino students who have not yet passed the exit exam are recent immigrants still learning English. Their inability to pass the exam is often a function of their taking a test in a language that they don't yet fully understand. Latinos who are fluent in English have far higher pass rates.

Q: Many see the exit exam as a way to ensure that a high school diploma means something, and that students who graduate have at least basic English and math skills. Shouldn't we have something like the exam to make sure all students have these basic skills?

A: If we want to ensure that all students can demonstrate basic skills, we need to provide all students with access to quality instruction. More fundamentally, I would argue that basic skills are not enough. What parent would be satisfied with basic academic competence as a goal? Our high school diploma should mean young people are prepared for successful futures, which requires greater investment in our schools.

Q: Some say we need the exit exam in order to measure student performance. Do you agree?

A: The exit exam results provide some useful additional information about student performance in particular schools, but we can learn from student test scores without denying students a diploma.

Q: What kind of impact do you think this exit exam will have on students and schools in the near future?

A: It will be extremely demoralizing for young people who have survived poor school conditions for many years to be denied a diploma at the end of 12th grade. There will be a lot of anger. My hope is that young people will channel this anger into political action to change the system.

Q: How have communities who feel the exam is unfair begun to channel some of this anger?

A: Young people and parents in grassroots organizations around the state have rallied against the exit exam and in favor of better learning conditions at their schools. What is striking about this activism -- and the related organizing in Los Angeles to ensure all schools provide a college preparatory curriculum -- is that students are taking action because they believe in the importance of education. Young people from organizations like Californians for Justice and the Coalition for Educational Justice want a quality education and they want it now.

Q: Do you think high stakes standardized tests are ever needed in our public school system? What about non-high stakes standardized tests?

A: Tests and assessments of all sorts are critically important. They can provide educators, students, and parents with valuable information about what students are learning. I am not against high-stakes tests. I am opposed to putting all the pressure on the backs of young people -- particularly when it is adults at the head of the system who have failed to provide a quality education to all.

Q: On Sept. 30, the Human Resources Research Organization -- an independent evaluator of the Exit Exam -- released the exit exam passage rates. What did the results show? And what does it mean for different groups of immigrant students?

A: This recent report confirms what we have been saying for several months: that around 100,000 students in the Class of 2006 are at risk of not graduating this spring because they have yet to pass the exit exam. The vast majority of these students are: 1) special education students; 2) immigrant students still learning English; and 3) African-American and Latino students attending schools with substandard conditions.

Denying these students diplomas will undermine the ability of many young people to move on to successful futures and will generate cynicism among young people who have not been given a fair chance to succeed. It is not too late to avoid these outcomes. California still has time to follow the report's recommendations and to create options for students who have not yet passed the exit exam.

Q: What kinds of options did the report recommend?

A: It suggested on that districts could grant students diplomas if the students successfully completed a summer program. Options such as this offer a way for the state to avoid the calamity of having perhaps 100,000 students denied a diploma.
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