Local immigrants affected by language and cultural barriers

By Brian Loschiavo
December 4, 2008

Immigrant students and families across the country, and here in the Philadelphia area are currently being affected by language and cultural barriers being held up in the educational system.

With many students, their lack of success boils down to poor communication and support. The parents of many immigrant students are not able to provide their children with a good support system when it comes to their education because of language differences.

“When everything is in English, it’s impossible in most situations for immigrant parents who do not speak the language to understand what is going on in their child’s education,” Zac Steele, of the Juntos Organization, said. “When there is a lack of communications between the schools and parents everything breaks down.”

Juntos, which stands for “together” in Spanish, is a community based organization and one of many groups out of Philadelphia that works towards developing support for immigrants in many areas while working for their rights.

There are many different aspects that are affecting the immigrant students. It is not just the language barrier, it goes much deeper than that. Racism, discrimination and cultural differences are also part of the bigger issue that the students are facing.

Steele emphasized that racism and discrimination are definitely present. Treatment by teachers, other students and other students parents all factor into the problem.

“There is also a huge problem with cultural difference,” Steele said. “Regardless of what country you come from most immigrants have no idea how the American school system works.”

Philadelphia, which has one of the largest and fastest growing immigrant populations across the country, is home to over 500,000 immigrants which make up nine percent of the population, according to the Brookings Institute.

There is a very diverse mix of immigrants making up the population.

Even though the students and families in the Philadelphia area are facing many education problems, they are doing very well compared to other immigrant populations across the country.

Jessica Jaxel, senior special, elementary and early childhood education major, talked about different programs that are in place to help immigrant students.

“There are many programs in areas heavily populated with immigrants and minorities, to enhance students’ learning of English. English as a Second Language is a popular program which takes students’ first language and then incorporates the English alphabet and phonetics, rather than taking on the “whole language” approach, which is more popular among English Language Learner programs. These programs both have their benefits and drawbacks. Personally, I think they work best in a combination of the two methods,” Jaxel said.

The Philadelphia school district recently held a meeting in South Philadelphia, which has one of the highest immigrant populations in the city, to talk about improving bilingual services.

Many immigrant parents and officials have been frustrated that the school district has not followed up to its legal agreement from 2001 that mandates translation services for non-English-speaking families. By the end of the meeting the school officials signed a contract vowing to improve the bilingual services.

“We are extremely happy that the school district agreed to work toward better services for the immigrant families,” Steele said. “But it has only been a short time, so we have to wait to see if they follow through with the plan.”

Many students also suffer because of the hardships that come with learning two languages at once. Many immigrant students speak one language at home and another at school. This is hard on the students because they tend to lose some of their home language and parents in turn become very frustrated.

“When these people come to America it’s like walking into a different world, not understanding how things work, especially the education system,” Steele said.

Many schools in the Philadelphia area are currently trying to address the problems that are being seen in the education system. A lot of schools are hiring more staff from the home countries of students that populate their school or area. The school districts are also trying to develop their faculty to be more linguistically and culturally sound.

“I feel that immersion is the best way to assimilate to a culture and learn that culture’s language, this is what I would practice if I have an English language learner in my future classroom,” Jaxel said.

Some schools are good in areas that other schools are bad in and some schools are bad at some of the areas that other schools are good at. Officials are saying that every school needs to work toward getting on the same page.

“All of the things that are happening to better the educational system for immigrant students and families are definitely small steps towards the larger picture,” Steele said.

Brian Loschiavo

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