Immigration, School, Segregation, Identity

>> Tuesday, January 13, 2009

January 9, The New York Times carried an article on a special school in Minneapolis. This school was a charter school. Part of movement in education that publicly funds schools that run by independent no governmental school boards the Minneapolis school is one that caters to immigrants, and the children of immigrants. The school in question is the International Elementary School, a charter school of about 560 pupils. The International school has a partner high school and middle school. The story of these schools is a perfect illustration of the immigrants identity struggle and the importance of the school in American society as well as the issue of segregation.

The Times article is only two pages long, which i think is a shame. The issues that the school and the thought behind it present are extremely important in a number of ways. The first of these is the way the schools allow for the retention of an immigrant identity that runs counter to the traditional model of immigrant assimilation.

The curriculum at the Twin Cities International Elementary School, and at its partner middle school and high school, is similar to that of other public schools with high academic goals. But at Twin Cities International the girls say they can freely wear head scarves without being teased, the lunchroom serves food that meets the dietary requirements of Muslims, and in every classroom there are East African teaching assistants who understand the needs of students who may have spent years in refugee camps. Twin Cities International students are from Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan, with a small population from the Middle East.

Amid the wave of immigration that has been reshaping Minnesota for more than three decades, the International schools are among 30 of the state’s 138 charter schools that are focused mostly on students from specific immigrant or ethnic groups. To visit a half-dozen of these schools, to listen to teachers, administrators and parents — Somali immigrants who are relatively new to Minnesota, as well as the Hmong and Latinos who have been in the state for decades — is to understand that Ms. Warsame’s high educational aspirations for her children, and her fears, are universal.

These two paragraphs effectively lay out the basic differences between the schools that are designed to accommodate the traditional identities of the immigrants. For example the girls continue to wear a headscarf which is a practice they might give up due to peer pressure. Children are not known for being amazingly tolerant of outsiders and those that dont have the right clothes or pop culture knowledge. The schools also take into account special dietary needs, something public schools fail to do. Both of these are specific examples of links to a traditional culture that simply would not exist in a public school.

Beyond these cultural links the education that the children are receiving is, according to the Times, actually maintaining the traditional cultural values of their immigrant identities.

Another father, Jelil Abdella, talked about how it saddened him that his two grown children, who had attended large district schools, did not know how to speak Somali.“They’re neither American, nor Somali,” Mr. Abdella said.

As a newcomer, he said, he was too busy going to school and earning a living — driving a taxi, cleaning floors, working in a factory, picking blueberries — to supervise their educations closely.

“I don’t want to make the same mistake with my younger children,” he said. “I want them to keep the good things we used to have back home — respecting their parents, helping each other, respecting their elders.”

The times goes on to provide a concrete example of this dual identity and traditional culture in action. They use a class debate over the merits of Barack Obama versus John McCain. The take away from this example was not that Obama's policy would be better or that McCain was a better CiC but instead that his age was the most valuable asset,

Yaqub, wearing a dark suit for the occasion, rose again. “John McCain is old,” he said. “It is better to be old.”

At the International school, where elders are revered, even Ridwa was silenced.

The school has managed to maintain even more than the traditional reverence for elders. It has also encouraged another key link to traditional identity, language. The children at the international school are maintaining the language of their ancestors.

At their meeting, the parents talked of the importance of speaking English at school — and Somali or Oromo at home. At other charter schools, Hmong refugee and Latino parents expressed the same wish, the difference being that they want their children to speak Hmong, or Spanish, at home, the other difference being that many of their children are already so Americanized that they are learning their parents’ languages in school.

By maintaining the language, ideals, and traditions these immigrant children may do something that has not been common among previous generations of immigrants to this country, maintaining a healthy dual identity as Somali-Americans or Hmong-Americans etc. This necessarily raises some serious questions about what it means to be American and the consequences of immigrant groups that may not be interested in assimilating into greater American society.

Progressive policies encourage the links to traditional heritage among immigrants. At the same time though we must consider whether separate schools for those who wish to retain their heritage are the best way to go. I think ideally we would want these children to be able to attend a public school along side non-immigrant children that allows them to maintain their heritage. After all we are supposed to be encouraging diversity in education. Are we really promoting diversity if we allow each race or ethnicity to form their own community separate from the others that teaches values and ideals different from each other? The key benefit from diversity comes with the interaction of different view points and backgrounds. It opens up your mind to new ways of thinking. The non-immigrant children may actually be losing an important influence by not interacting with these immigrant children and vis a versa.

I think maybe im just troubled by the "seperateness" of the school. The school itself is based in part on a rejection of American culture. I just cant help but feel that that rejection will set these kids apart in there future. whether thats going to be good or bad im not sure and its possible that im overstating this as all of this could be easily sorted out in the great mixing bowl that is college. The part of culture being rejected is not really even a positive part in my opinion but lacking an interest in many of the same childhood and pop culture experiences can definitely set someone on the path to outsiderness.

The reaction of conservatives to this practice is most likely negative. I can easily picture them complaining that the immigrants are insufficiently grateful for the bounty that America has bestowed upon them and that they need to learn to be proper Americans and not "foriegners". America is no 1 and if they don't understand that they can just leave.

We would not need to have this type of discussion or envision the conservative view if we were able to sufficiently broaden the idea of what it means to be an American. We just finished an election where one of the candidates ran on the idea that their side was winning in the "real" Virginia and where plenty of people were charged with insufficient patriotism. I don't think the immigrants discussed in the story have an insufficient love of this country. Its clear from the text that they do love and consider themselves to be Americans.

The story of America is the story of immigration and its really sad that much of the story involves the elimination of the immigrants traditional heritage. Hopefully we can find a way froward so that schools like the International School are not necessary for immigrants and minorities to maintain their traditional cultural heritage and identity alongside their American one.


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