Immigrant students find school system didn’t have them in mind

National data show high dropout rates, but locally there are no studies.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When José Ángel Torres arrived in the United States seven years ago, the most difficult thing was trying to understand what was going on around him.

He was only 10 and did not speak English. Nonetheless he was expected to be like any other 5th grader, learning math, science, and other subjects. He said no one bothered asking him if he needed any help.

Torres is one of an untold number of immigrant youth who have dropped out of Philadelphia high schools.

One recent national study found that immigrants make up nearly one quarter of the country’s teen dropouts.

“I didn’t like school from the beginning because I didn’t understand anything,” Torres recalled. “I felt I was dumb, especially with the vocabulary exams; those really screwed me up.”

Lost and lonely in a new world, his mind was set only on going back to his native Mexico – until hip hop came into his life, teaching him lessons he did not find in the classroom.

“I started listening to the radio, lots of music like Eminem, 50 Cent, Tupac and Biggie; I liked what they did with language,” he said.

Growing up in Philadelphia was not easy. He faced violence in and out of school and classrooms that felt more like a prison than like a learning hub.

“I would start cutting class one day here and there with my friends, but nothing serious until last year,” he said. It took a while to realize that “I wasn’t going to school at all.”

Torres remembers having at least 70 absences before he stopped attending Furness High in South Philadelphia last year. He said no one approached him to push him to return to school until his mother pleaded with him to go back and finish.

“I don’t really want to go to school, but I’m doing it because of my mom and now because of the baby my girlfriend and I are expecting,” he said.

Torres is now enrolled at Performance Learning Center SW, an accelerated school for over-age and under-credited students run by Communities in Schools.

His story is typical of what many immigrant children face when they come to this country. The education system was shaped without them in mind, and reform policies “fail to consider their particular needs or realities,” according to researchers Marcelo and Carola Suarez-Orozco of New York University.

As a result, these children often wind up in inappropriate settings, receiving inappropriate instruction.

Nationally, the consequences for immigrant youth are apparent. In a 2005 study, the Pew Hispanic Center found that while only 8 percent of the nation’s teens are foreign-born, nearly 25 percent of teen dropouts were born outside the United States.

“The dropout rate for teens with school problems before migration is in excess of 70 percent, in comparison with 8 percent for other foreign-born youths,” stated the report.

The Pew study said many of these were poorly educated before arriving.

The study also found that many immigrant youth never enrolled in school in the United States; the purpose in migrating for many youth was probably to seek employment.

This and other research suggests that by not keeping track of immigrant children’s academic achievement and their families’ needs, many problems go undetected. Schools lack services not only for these youth but for their families as well, which increases the chance they’ll drop out.

In Philadelphia, the only available graduation data related to immigrants are the School District’s records for English language learners (ELLs) – whose graduation rate is 57 percent, close to the District average. That ELL rate, however, is a composite of rates for an array of nationalities that sheds no light on the performance of particular ethnic groups.

Moreover, ELLs and immigrant populations do not coincide – students from Puerto Rico are citizens whose first language is Spanish while some immigrants are native English speakers.

“The District doesn’t have a direct indicator of immigrant kids because it is illegal to ask kids who are registering whether they have a Social Security number,” explained Mary Yee, who ran the District’s now-extinct Office of Family Engagement and Language Equity Services.

Even when determining where a student was born, “that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. You don’t know who are the children living with immigrant families,” Yee said.

Some say they spot the immigrant students when the time comes to fill out college applications.

“Almost 50 percent of my students, most of them the brightest in their class, don’t fill them out because they won’t be able to attend college due to their status; the door is almost shut for them,” said Nilza Lozada, Edison/Fareira High School’s multicultural SLC coordinator.

The School District did not respond to requests for information about current initiatives to help immigrant students.

Like Torres, many immigrant youth in Philadelphia face violence and discrimination.

“We encountered a lack of resources at schools; the language barrier was also an issue because all letters to my parents were never translated and this is still the case today in many schools,” said Xu Lin, a Chinese youth organizer and a Furness High graduate.

He also pointed to family economic needs.

“Most immigrant students come from working class families,” he said. “Their family prefers them to work than to attend school; they are pressured to work to support the family.”

This is the case for Javi, whose full name the Notebook is withholding due to his immigration status. He left his family in Mexico when he was 15 to provide for his mother after finishing the Mexican equivalent of middle school.

“Down there, you only think of coming here to work – not to go to school,” he said.

“I would like to get an education, but I would have to fully learn the language first and that takes time. Right now I need to make money to send it back home.”