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Immigrants in school, through an educator’s eyes

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina, U.S.A. — As an English as a Second Language teacher, it never mattered to Dianne Iseman whether a student was an immigrant or not.
Iseman, a former ESL teacher at RJ Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said it isn’t the teacher’s job to determine who is an immigrant, it is the teacher’s job to teach.
Views on immigration often are linked to what a person does for a living or their station in society.
While some may view immigrants as cheap labor – or as a threat to their own job – many teachers, like Iseman, are just happy to help immigrant students any way they can.
One way to make a difference is outside of the classroom, as Iseman – who spent 13 years as an ESL teacher and is now at Forsyth Tech Community College in Winston-Salem – can attest.
She was not only an ESL teacher, she helped with all subjects.
For Iseman, this meant being a support system, parent figure, and sometimes even a social worker. The main challenge for an educator is to prevent the students from dropping out, she said.
Iseman also explained that the average high school student has to overcome many barriers to graduate.
Imagine being an immigrant, she said, and not speaking any English in school.
Students are placed in grade level by age, not ability and this is where problems sometimes occur, according to Iseman.
Stan Elrod, the former principal at Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said immigrant children would enroll in school and then fall behind for various reasons.
Once they saw what was happening, Elrod said, they would work extremely hard to catch up.
Immigrant students, said Elrod, see education as a “privilege,” not a “right.”
When asked if having non-English speaking students in a classroom disturbs the learning environment, Elrod said that any time there are different learning abilities in a classroom, the environment is disturbed.
Students will either get it or they won’t, he said.
If an immigrant student comes to high school not speaking any English, they’re in trouble, Iseman said.
Iseman said it takes five to seven years to learn academic English, so it may take five to seven years to graduate.
When immigrants come to America, Iseman said, they’re in what she calls the “honeymoon” phase, and amazed at how much everybody has.
“To them it’s like the streets are paved with gold,” said Iseman.
But after this phase, Iseman said, they become very homesick and fall into the silent phase where they do a lot of listening.
Then slowly they begin to speak the language, read it, and start to write, Iseman said. Then finally they know English and are ready to move on.
The sad fact is these children may not have much of a future.
The families may not have enough money for college, so they make the most out of high school because it may be the only chance at an education they get.
“I stated working with children that are immigrants … and I saw how hard their parents worked and what their parents wanted for them,” said Iseman. “The children would succeed and they would have no future. I see a lot of talent in these young people, talent that we need.”
But these students don’t always succeed.
Elrod compared immigrant students to young children.
“If they don’t get the attention they deserve, they may create attention,” said Elrod. “This attention is often negative.”
Iseman said she believes the only way to help solve this problem is to grant these immigrants citizenship.
“If we don’t fix this, it will only lead to more dropouts, more gangs, and more teenage pregnancies,” Iseman said.
Like their parents, student immigrants also face other hurdles, some of them emotional ones.
Iseman recalled a Hispanic girl who came to her in tears because of a name she was called by a classmate.
“It’s a whole new prejudice,” said Iseman. “We focus so hard on prejudices away, but we have prejudices here also.

Taylor Isenhour is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

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