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An American education: refugees and new immigrants face challenges to graduation

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9 2013 6:15 p.m. MST

Haredo Mohamed, left, DaHimNa Be and Sanam Masih participate in Valerie Gates' ESL class at West High School in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

It's a chilly winter morning and eight students sit in Valerie Gates' ESL class for "new arrivals" at West High School. They are enjoying a feast of international flavors including Egyptian basbousa cake, Burmese breakfast rice and Mexican rice with mole.

Gates talks with her students about the dishes they have each brought to share. She speaks slowly and clearly so her students, who only speak a few words of English, have time to hear and translate her words. They answer her questions with shy smiles and short, cautious phrases.

"What time did you wake up to make this rice?"

"Five o'clock I wake up today," answers Rafiq, a refugee from Burma who is proud of his efforts, though he doesn't know what his breakfast dish is called.

"Did you make this mole yourself?"

"No," comes the quiet reply from a girl from Mexico, "My mother make."

Gates teaches ESL classes at West, where almost 40 percent of 2,500 students are English language learners. She says some are "so bright, and yet things are hard here because of the language."

Population data indicate 40 million immigrants were living in the United States in 2010, double the immigrant population of 1990. Of these, 2.4 million are children — that's almost as many children as live in the state of Ohio. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that 72 percent of immigrants entered the country legally. Parents come to the country for work, but children must enroll in a school system that is largely unprepared to serve them.

Despite a national increase in the overall graduation rate, the dropout rate for foreign-born refugee and immigrant students remains above 30 percent, three times that of U.S.-born white students, and twice as high as the dropout rate of native-born Latino students. Now, in an effort to boost their graduation statistics, school systems across the U.S. are trying new ways to keep English language learners on track.

Different backgrounds, outcomes

The bell rings and West High assistant principal Rick Jaramillo walks down the hall, greeting students by name as they head to their next class. He still remembers students he taught two decades ago, before he became an administrator and before his hair began to gray. West serves several growing local immigrant communities, and the high school sits less than a mile away from local offices of three different refugee resettlement organizations.

The first wave of refugees from a country in conflict that Jaramillo usually sees at West include people with the most money and access to escape. The children from these families tend to be wealthier, better educated and more familiar with English. Their families expect them to graduate, and many go on to college.

Years later, he says, the school begins to see students from poorer and less-educated families of those countries, some of whom have lived in refugee camps with few educational opportunities for years before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security approves them for resettlement in the U.S. Jaramillo has seen this cycle with families from Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia (now Bosnia, Sarajevo, and Croatia), and now Somalia.

Some students have never been to school, but now they are in high school classes because of their age. One 12th-grader enrolled at West a few months ago. He speaks almost no English and had not been in school since sixth grade. He is not expected to make up the learning — or credits — he would need to graduate by June. Instead, he will "exit the system" without a diploma. Gates hopes he and students like him at least learn a little English," have some success and feel good about being here.

Graduation goals

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