Lost in Translation

‘One-way street’ for immigrant integration in schools

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star
Cruz Tapia joins in a discussion among members of the United Northwest club about a documentary video on diversity during an after-school meeting at Northwest High School in Indianapolis. To his right is Maria Ulloa-Loza. Claudia Montes (left) is the college and career readiness adviser for English learners.

During his first week of school in the United States, fifth-grader Cruz Tapia climbed to the top of the slide on the playground.

Just being in school was part of the promise that America represented to his Mexican family. Like so many others, his family moved here to chase a vision of a better life, free of fear and filled with boundless opportunities.

In America, Tapia wouldn’t have to pass gangs with guns on every street corner. In America, he and his sister could attend school, instead of one having to work to afford the other’s education.

But when he went down the slide that day at recess, what awaited him at the bottom was a reminder that America, too, can have its own set of hostilities and challenges for immigrants.

What awaited him also made him think his family wouldn’t last long here.

Three of his classmates shoved him to the ground. “Go back to your country,” they told him. “You don’t belong here.”

Tapia couldn’t speak English, couldn’t read it, couldn’t understand it — like thousands of other immigrant children who have come to Indianapolis from across the world over the past two decades.

He felt as though teachers didn’t want to teach him. He sat in front of a computer trying to learn English every morning until lunch, went to gym class and then returned to the same classroom to sit in front of the computer again.

Lost in school, he asked other Mexican students for help in Spanish. They ignored him.

“What makes them belong here?” he wondered to himself. “And what makes me not belong here?”

Schools pour resources into programs for English language learners. They hand out backpacks filled with school supplies. They train teachers to better instruct non-native speakers. They hire interpreters.

But experts say something else — something that might ease the transition of immigrant students in America, something that might help tamp down prejudices and bridge hateful divides — is too often overlooked.

That missing piece, they say, is teaching their U.S.-born and bred classmates to understand, empathize and welcome their immigrant classmates, to develop what is called “cultural competency.”

“That’s one that we probably need to do a better job of, honestly,” said Jessica Feeser, who coordinates Indianapolis Public Schools’ programs for students learning English as a new language.

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Since 2006, Indiana has gained tens of thousands of immigrant students. Out of 1 million students in Indiana’s public schools last year, more than 53,000 were classified as English language learners — which understates immigrant enrollment, because it doesn’t include students who have mastered English skills since their arrival.

“Our English learners are just as important as any other student in the classroom,” Feeser said. “It’s our obligation to make sure we’re meeting their needs.”

To show what diversity at the school looks like through their eyes, students in the United Northwest International Club at Northwest High School have been working after school to film a documentary for IPS administrators.

With the help of the Latino Youth Collective, they have interviewed one another, fellow students and teachers: What does diversity mean? Where are you from? Do you think people treat others differently because of what they look like?

Northwest sophomore Irwin Fernandez thinks he knows why other students treat him differently.

“Probably because they hate us,” the 16-year-old said.

His uncle told him what Americans think of Mexicans: “We’re taking their jobs, we’re taking their place, we’re taking their money.”

But his relatives in Mexico look up to Fernandez as the first in the family to go to the U.S. to earn his education — and he wants to do well in school to make them proud.

“Keep it up,” they tell him. “Don’t get in trouble.”

That can be a challenge when immigrant students say they feel like they’re often prodded and provoked by their classmates. At its worst, the ignorance of other students seems malicious. But even if it’s unintended, it can still feel constantly irritating.

“This morning, somebody asked me, ‘Do you have potatoes in Africa?’ ” said Northwest senior Mariam Sylla, 19, from Guinea. “I said ‘no’ because his question was stupid.”

Of course there are potatoes in Africa. But she grows tired of all the questions from so many people who don’t seem to know much about her country — often not knowing where it is, or that it even exists.

Are you Jamaican? Are you Nigerian? Do you wear clothes in Africa? Do you live in a jungle? Have you seen a lion?

“Everybody thought Africa was a zoo,” Sylla said.

Our prejudices and biases often surface — along with our curiosities — when we ask questions about how an immigrant’s national and ethnic origins are different from our own, said Rachel Peric, deputy director of Welcoming America, a national network that fosters integration between U.S.-born and foreign-born Americans.

“All of us have biases and things that we have heard that are incorrect and often hurtful,” she said, “But the question is, are we working to overcome those biases and to approach people with love?

“Or,” Peric said, “is the desire to hurt and insult someone?”

Communities should strive to actively welcome — not just tolerate — immigrant students, she said.

“For a long time, in general, we’ve approached immigrant integration as a one-way street, so a lot of the onus has been put on newcomers to adapt,” she said.

Northwest senior Moji Olorode, a 17-year-old from Nigeria, has learned to ignore the bullies who tell her to go back to her country — yes, she’s heard that, too — because, she said, they stop when you don’t pay attention to them. They’ll keep at it if you retaliate.

She also firmly rejects the idea that she should have to change who she is to fit in here.

“Since you’re no longer in your country, most people want you to blend into the cultures here,” she said, “And it just isn’t right. Being African makes me proud.”

For these Northwest students, time seems to have eased the culture clashes. They found friends, mix their own languages with English and speak in American slang. They dream of going to college.

For Tapia, it has been eight years since he was confronted at the bottom of the playground slide. He is now 18 and a senior at Northwest.

Coming to America — and everything he has endured with that — has made him grow up faster, he said. He now sees the world as having two types of people: those who want to help you, and those who want to harm you.

“We didn’t make the decision to come here,” he said. “They don’t know what you had to do to come here, or what you have to do to stay here. They don’t know what it’s like to work twice as hard to learn the language.”

America still represents opportunity, but the glossy vision is sanded down a little. Life is better but still bumpy.

After he graduates from high school this year, Tapia plans to enlist in the military. Maybe, he thinks, people will see him differently when he’s fighting for this country.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Indianapolis Star. Stephanie Wang is a reporter for the Star. Contact her at [email protected].

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Thanks to LUNA for providing the translation for this series.
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‘Calle de un solo sentido’ para la integración inmigrante en escuelas

Las escuelas se enfocan en aprendices de Ingles pero, seguido pasan por alto la falta de entendimiento cultural de sus compañeros de clase nacidos en EU.

Durante su primer semana de escuela en los Estados Unidos, Cruz Tapia alumna de quinto grado escaló a la cima del resbaladero en el campo de juegos.

El tan solo iniciar escuela fue parte de la promesa que América representó para esta familia Mexicana. Como muchas otras, su familia se mudó aquí para perseguir una visión de una mejor vida, libre de miedos y llena de oportunidades sin límites.

En América, Tapia no tenía que pasar a gangas con pistolas en cada esquina. En América, él y su hermana podían ir a la escuela, en lugar de tener que trabajar para poder costear la educación del otro.

Pero cuando se resbaló ese día durante el recreo, lo que le esperaba abajo era un recordatorio que américa también puede tener sus propias hostilidades y retos para inmigrantes.

Lo que le esperaba también le hizo pensar que su familia no iba a durar mucho aquí.

Tres de sus compañeros de clase lo empujaron al suelo. “Regrésate a tu país,” le dijeron. “No perteneces aquí.”

Tapia no podía hablar inglés, no podía leerlo, no podía entenderlo – como miles de otros niños inmigrantes que han venido a Indianapolis de todas partes del mundo desde las dos últimas décadas.

El sentía como que los maestros no querían enseñarle. Se sentaba frente a un computador todas las mañanas, hasta la hora del almuerzo, intentando aprender inglés, iba a clase de educación física y regresaba al mismo salón para sentarse nuevamente frente al computador.

Perdido en la escuela, les pedía ayuda a otros niños Mexicanos en Español. Lo ignoraban.

“Que es lo que a ellos los hace pertenecer aquí?” se preguntaba asimismo. “Y que es lo que a mí no me hace pertenecer aquí?”

Las escuelas derramaron recursos en programas para aprendices del idioma Ingles. Repartieron mochilas llenas con útiles escolares. Entrenaron a maestros para mejor instruir a los no-nativo hablantes. Contrataron intérpretes.

Pero los expertos dicen algo mas – algo que pudiera facilitar la transición de estudiantes inmigrantes a América, algo que pudiera ayudar apisonar prejuicios y superar las divisiones de odio – es muy seguido pasado por alto.

Esa pieza faltante, ellos dices, es enseñar a sus nacidos y criados en E.U. a entender, empatizar y dar bienvenida a sus compañeros de clase inmigrantes, a desarrollar lo que se llama “aptitud cultural.”

“Esa es una en las cuales probablemente necesitamos hacer un mejor trabajo, honestamente,” Jessica Feeser dijo, la que coordina los programas de las Escuelas Públicas de Indianapolis para estudiantes que están aprendiendo el inglés como un nuevo idioma.

Desde 2006, Indiana ha aumentado miles de estudiantes inmigrantes. Del 1 millón de estudiantes en las escuelas públicas de Indiana el año pasado, más de 53,000 fueron clasificados como aprendices del idioma Ingles – lo cual subestima la inscripción de inmigrantes porque no incluye los estudiantes que han dominado las habilidades de Ingles desde su llegada.

“Nuestros aprendices de inglés son tan importantes como cualquier otro estudiante en el salón,” dijo Feeser. “Es nuestra obligación asegurarnos que estamos satisfaciendo sus necesidades.”

Para demostrar como la diversidad en la escuela se mira a través de sus ojos, los estudiantes del Club Internacional de los Estados del Noroeste de la Preparatoria Northwest han estado trabajando, después de escuela, en filmar un documental para los administradores de las Escuelas Públicas de Indianapolis (IPS por sus siglas en inglés)

Con la ayuda del Colectivo de Jóvenes Latinos, se han entrevistado el uno al otro, compañeros de trabajo y maestros: Que significa la diversidad? De dónde eres? Crees que las personas tratan a otros de diferente forma por como se miran?

El estudiante de segundo año de Northwest, Irwin Fernández, cree saber por qué otros estudiantes lo tratan diferente. “Probablemente porque nos odian,” dijo el de 16 años de edad.

Su tío le dijo lo que los americanos piensan de los mexicanos: “Les estamos quitando sus trabajos, les estamos quitando su lugar, estamos tomando su dinero.”

Pero sus familiares en México admiran a Fernández por ser el primero en su familia al ir a los E.U. para obtener su educación – y quiere salir bien en la escuela para hacerles orgullosos.

“Sigue adelante,” le dicen. “No te metas en problemas.”

Esto puede ser un reto ya que los estudiantes inmigrantes dicen que se siente muy seguido que son molestados y provocados por sus compañeros de clase. En su peor momento, la ignorancia de otros estudiantes se mira sospechosa. Pero aunque se no intencional, puede sentirse constantemente irritante.

“Esta mañana, alguien me preguntó, ‘Tiene papas en África?” Mariam Sylla, de 19 años, de Guinea, estudiante de cuarto grado de Northwest dijo. “Yo dije ‘no’ porque su pregunta era estúpida.”

Claro que hay papas en África. Pero ella ya está cansada de todas las preguntas de tantas personas que parecen no saber mucho acerca de su país – seguido no saben dónde está, o que siquiera existe.

Eres de Jamaica? Eres de Nigeria? Usas ropa en África? Vives en la selva? Has visto un león?

“Todos piensan que África es un zoológico,” dijo Sylla.

Nuestros prejuicios a menudo salen a la superficie – junto con nuestra curiosidad – cuando preguntamos acerca de cómo los origines nacionales y étnicos de un inmigrante son diferentes a los nuestros, dijo Rachel Peric, directora delegada de Bienvenida América, una red nacional que fomenta la integración entre americanos nacidos en E.U. y extranjeros.

“”Todos tenemos prejuicios y cosas que hemos escuchado que son incorrectas y a veces hirientes,” ella dijo, “pero la pregunta es, estamos trabajando para sobrepasar esos prejuicios y acercarnos a las personas con amor?”

“O,” dijo Peric, “es el deseo de herir e insultar a alguien?”

Las comunidades deben de esforzarse en dar una viva bienvenida – no solo tolerar – a estudiantes inmigrantes, ella dijo.

“Por mucho tiempo, en general, nos hemos acercado a la integración de inmigrantes como una calle de un solo sentido, entonces mucha de la carga se ha puesto en que se adapten los recién llegados,” ella dijo.

La estudiante de cuarto grado de Northwest, Moji Olorode, una chica de 17 años de edad de Nigeria, ha aprendido a ignorar a los intimidantes (bullies) quienes le dicen que se regrese a su país – sí, ella también ha escuchado eso – porque ellos paran cuando uno no les hace caso. Ellos siguen haciéndolo si tú te desquitas.

Ella también rechaza firmemente la idea de que tienes que cambiar quien es para poder encajar.

“Ya que no estás en tu país, la mayoría de la gente quiere que te mezcles dentro de las culturas de aquí, y eso, simplemente no es correcto. Ser Africana me hace sentir orgullosa.”

Para estos estudiantes de Northwest, el tiempo parece haber facilitado el choque de culturas. Encontraron amigos, mezclaron sus propios idiomas con el inglés y hablan caló americano (jerga). Sueñan con ir al colegio.

Para Tapia, han sido 8 años desde cuando fue confrontado al final del resbaladero del área de juegos. Ahora tiene 18 años y es un estudiante de cuarto grado de Northwest.

Venir a América – y todo con lo que ha tenido que lidiar – lo ha hecho madurar más rápido. Ahora ve que el mundo tiene dos tipos de personas: aquellos que te quieren ayudar y aquellos que te quieren hacer daño.

“No tomamos la decisión de venir aquí. Ellos no saben lo que tuviste que hacer para venir aquí, o lo que tienes que hacer para poder quedarte aquí. Ellos no saben lo que es trabajar el doble de duro para aprender el idioma.”

América sigue representado oportunidad, pero la visión lustrosa está lijada un poco. La vida es mejor pero aun con topes.

Este año, después de que se gradúe de la preparatoria, Tapia planea enlistarse en el militar. Talvez el piensa, que las personas lo verán de diferente forma cuando esté peleando por este país.

Lost in Translation

10 inspiring minutes on education, freedom and the American dream

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Elly Mawi expressed her gratitude for her teachers at Chalkbeat and WFYI's recent Conversation about Education focused on English language learners.

Chalkbeat’s recent series, Lost In Translation, jointly published with the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media, aimed to shed light on the challenges schools face to help English language learners, especially those newly arrived from other countries, thrive.

But helping immigrant children at school also requires understanding their lives before coming to the United States and their broader experiences as newcomers to Indiana.

For Indianapolis, one of the biggest and fastest-growing immigrant student groups is children from Burma.

Last week, Chalkbeat brought together four people who shared their stories in the series for a panel discussion at the Central Library. For the full conversation, go here. But, thanks to WFYI, you can now view a 10-minute highlight video (below).

Be prepared to be moved.

Two of the panelists, May Oo Mutraw and and Elly Mawi, spoke passionately about the hardships Burmese families have in Indiana.

Most of them, Mutraw said, were fleeing a 66-year civil war that upended their lives.

“They lived literally in the war zone, said Mutraw, founder of Indianapolis’ Burmese Community Center for Education. “Their villages were burned down. They fled into the forest.”

Schooling, she said, was also a casualty.

“We are talking about a generation who did not get to go to school — the whole generation,” she said.

But in Indiana, with the help of public schools, they had an opportunity for a much better future. They understand the American dream.

“I personally always believed that through education we can liberate ourselves,” Mutraw said. “Education, for me and for my family, is a practice of freedom.”

Mawi, a top student graduating this year from Perry Township’s Southport High School, once sat on a dirt floor to learn from volunteer teachers in a refugee camp in Malaysia, said even in her community people don’t realize what many Burmese children have been through.

“We come here in the first place because we are at the line of life and death,” she said. “It’s whether you die or if you fight and you escape.”

Mawi praised Southport as a great place for English language learners and Perry Township as welcoming. But still, even there, not everyone understands how common her story is.

“A lot of times, people think the reason we come here is because of greed,” she said. “We get a lot of misunderstanding for that.”

Near the end of the event, Mawi turned to the audience to praise her teachers, several of whom were in the audience.

Some of them were moved to tears.

“This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, but not just this every day,” she said. “If you are a teacher sitting here tonight, or watching on live stream, thank you for what you have done.”

Mawi then addressed English as a new language teachers directly.

“As an ENL student … we thank you,” she said. “We love you. You make a difference. You might not get enough praise or enough pay or enough credit for what you have done. But you are making a difference every day in our lives.”

Teachers who have more challenges in the classroom, like helping kids learn to speak English, should be judged less harshly if test scores take time to catch up to their peers, she said.

“You are the unsung heroes of our society and community,” Mawi said, turning back toward the teachers. “We love you and thank you.”

Lost in Translation

Video: Advocates for English learners discuss challenges of teaching immigrant students

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Charlie Geier of the Indiana Department of Education and Southport High School Student Elly Mawi speak on a panel hosted by Chalkbeat and WFYI at the Indianapolis Public Library.

Helping English language learners adapt to school in the U.S. isn’t simply the responsibility of specially trained teachers — or at least it shouldn’t be — experts argued Thursday.

At a panel discussion organized by Chalkbeat, WFYI and the Indianapolis Star at the Indianapolis Public Library Wednesday, key figures from a recent series of stories about English language learning in Indiana called “Lost in Translation” discussed the challenges that immigrant students face and ideas for how they can be better served in the future. The series was a joint effort of Chalkbeat, the Star and WFYI Public Media.

“I think what schools are struggling with is who owns these students,” said said Charlie Geier, who oversees English language learning programs for the Indiana Department of Education. “The answer is everybody owns these students. (Learning English) is just not something that happens in isolation for 15 minutes a day or 30 minutes a day.”

Along with Geier, the panel included Southport High School student Elly Mawi; May Oo Mutraw, founder of the Burmese Community Center for Education; and Eddie Rangel, an Indianapolis Public Schools teacher.

The speakers said schools need to take advantage of increased state funding, approved by the legislature in the wake of the series.

Video from the event is now available thanks to WFYI. If the video doesn’t play above, click here to watch it. You can find a shorter 10-minute version below.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the American Graduate Project also helped sponsor the event.