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Migrant Students Pose Daunting Challenge

It's easy to criticize public schools for failing to post satisfactory outcomes for newcomers to these shores, but the truth is that they have never done a particularly good job ("Nearly 1 in 4 students at this L.A. high school migrated from Central America - many without their parents," Los Angeles Times, Jul. 15).  That's important to remember because of the tendency to lapse into educational nostalgia.

As Irving Howe wrote: "the New York school system did rather well in helping immigrant children who wanted help, fairly well in helping those who needed help, and quite badly in helping those who resisted help" (World Of Our Fathers, Simon & Schuster, 1976). I cite this since New York City at the beginning of the 20th century, which he was referring to, was the principal port of entry for thousands of impoverished immigrants.  Los Angeles today has replaced New York City, largely because of the number of undocumented people coming from Mexico and Central America. Between 1980 and 2007, more than 10 million people migrated (legally or illegally) from Mexico to the U.S. ("A Nation Built for Immigrants," The Wall Street Journal, Sep. 20, 2013).

Yet critics maintain that when students don't learn as much as they should, the fault is the schools, most notably the teachers.  How they can make that charge in light of what is taking place at Belmont High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District and in other schools throughout the country is beyond me.  Extreme poverty poses a daunting challenge to even the best teachers.  When students are exhausted from lack of sleep and proper nutrition, how can they possibly learn? 

When I was teaching, I had a student in my first-period English composition class who frequently asked me for permission to go to the school library.  When I pressed him for an explanation, he told me he worked on the docks until late at night to earn money for his family.  As a result, he wanted to go to the library to take a nap in order to face the rest of the day. He could have simply cut class to sleep in his car, but he desperately wanted to graduate. 

These students deserve credit for their perseverance.  By the same token, teachers deserve recognition for trying to teach classes increasingly filled with immigrant students.  If they both fall short, it's not for lack of effort.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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