The Power of Education: Local Immigrants Pursuit Despite Hardships

Illustrations by Chris Castro

Brenda Grant was the first in her family to graduate high school and college, her younger sisters following in her footsteps. A teacher at Santa Fe South High School for the past 11 years, Grant now inspires her students in similar situations. With a high population of first-generation Americans, the journey isn’t always easy, but the lesson Grant imparts to her students is worth it.

“You have more options, as opposed to limiting yourself to what was available to your parents,” Grant said of pursuing higher education. “My life has changed completely because I gave myself the opportunity to learn and gain knowledge and experience. That’s a gift I want to give my students.”

Grant teaches Senior Seminar at Santa Fe South, where she helps students prepare for the ACT, write essays for college applications, craft resumes and apply for financial aid. For many of her students, English is their second language and despite proficiency, they face challenges like testing anxiety.

“The language they speak at school is not the language they speak at home,” said Grant. “Even though they are used to speaking English, they are having to translate constantly.”

Grant calls her students resilient and hard-working. Janet Gorton, coordinator for English Learners for Norman Public Schools said those students who continue to show up to gain their educations, despite language challenges, are courageous. For undocumented immigrant students who were recipients of DACA before the program was rescinded by the Trump Administration in September 2017, Raul Font, president of the Latino Community Development Agency (LCDA), said it’s challenging for them to concentrate on school when their very futures in the only place most of them have ever called home is uncertain.

There are currently more than 800,000 DACA recipients in the United States with nearly 7,000 calling Oklahoma home. They are undocumented immigrants, brought to this country as children, whose application for the program allowed them to receive work permits, apply for driver’s licenses, pursue education, pay taxes and stay exempt from deportation. As time ticks down on Congress’ six-month timeframe to pass legislative action to continue the program or solidify DACA recipients’ path to citizenship, Grant said fear and anxiety are prevalent among her students. While federal laws and Supreme Court precedent require equal access to public education for all youth, including those who are undocumented, Font, a former OKCPS principal, said Trump’s promises to crack down on deportations have affected school attendance in the metro.

“As soon as the president was named in November [2016], we had problems with attendance at [Oklahoma City Public Schools] because people were afraid their kids were going to be profiled,” said Font. “We’ve had to talk to these kids and parents because they were dropping their kids in tears thinking they weren’t going to see each other at the end of the day.”

According to the Journal of Adolescent Research, undocumented youth in particular experience high levels of stress from immigration-related issues as they assimilate to the United States. Fear of potential separation from family, detention and deportation can cause depression and anxiety. Although Grant finds it difficult to reassure her senior students to continue to apply for college and scholarships despite the uncertainty surrounding immigration policies, she encourages them to keep working like they were before the announcement.

“They just want the opportunity to make something of themselves,” said Grant. “They want to give back. They don’t want to take anything from anyone.”

As immigrant students, both documented and undocumented, navigate their right to a public school education in the state of Oklahoma, they often face challenges above and beyond native students, perhaps making their achievements of their educational goals that much more meaningful.

The challenge: Learning English

Particularly since DACA was rescinded, Norman Public Schools has reassured families that every child is entitled to an education, no matter their citizenship status.

“We care about each child and want them to be successful here,” said Gorton of the district’s stance. “That’s helped our families feel safe and secure.”

Last year, NPS reported 80 different languages spoken among district families, making the district’s English Learner program an essential piece of many students’ educations. As part of public school enrollment across the state and nation, families answer questions that help district officials determine whether students could benefit from the program. According to the Education Commission of the States, in 2014, 6.7 percent of students in Oklahoma, or more than 44,000 students, were classified English Language Learners.

ELL students may have some English proficiency, or may not even know the word “hello.” For students used to school in other cultures or parts of the world, the size of U.S. schools, how to interact with teachers and even cafeteria norms are daunting.

“It’s like being in a world where you wish there were subtitles all day long,” said Gorton. “All they can do [at first] is just follow and model their peers.”

At NPS, the English Learner program is part of students’ normal school day. Elementary students often have direct English instruction with a small group of students for a portion of their day, working on listening, speaking, reading and writing skills, but spend the majority of their school days in their regular classrooms. In middle school and high school, students take an English Learner class, or an English Learner teacher attends class with them to provide support. Gorton said NPS teachers are used to providing differentiated instruction for all their students, not just those in the ELL program, and are committed to determining what support or modifications help meet each students’ specific learning needs.

“There is no cookie-cutter approach,” said Gorton. “We identify where they are in their skills, knowing where we want them to be and matching what best supports them in achieving that outcome.”

Gorton said it takes students an average of two to three years to become proficient in social language, what students use in the classroom, hallways and playground with their peers. But it takes five to seven years for students to become proficient in academic language, which is the vocabulary specific to classroom content, like physics or government. Every student, no matter their native language, has to learn this type of academic language and it’s a process that takes years for every student.

“There’s no such thing as a native speaker of academic vocabulary,” said Gorton. “But for English learners, it may take more repetition because they may not even know the words in their native language. They have no background knowledge, so they need more exposure to acquire language conceptually.”

Gorton’s goal for students in achieving English proficiency is to be able to function socially and academically in society. When they pass the extremely difficult proficiency test, it’s cause for celebration.

“It doesn’t matter if they are 8 or in high school, it shows a great deal of growth and confidence,” said Gorton. “They feel they can participate in their community and get a job. They have the skill set to achieve their goals.”

NPS continues to monitor students for four years after they meet the ELL exit criteria for the state of Oklahoma, with classroom teachers and ELL teachers working together to provide support as needed.

“How wonderful that these kids can have the opportunity to become bilingual, to maintain abilities in their native language and gain literacy in the English language,” said Grant. “It gives great potential to their futures to have that kind of skill set.”

The challenge: Culture clash

In addition to the challenge of speaking one language at home and another at school, Font said the LCDA sees a lot of clashes in local Latino homes surrounding cultural differences. The strife in such families can cause kids to act out.

“Kids want to be American, but parents are traditional Latinos,” said Font. “Then kids look for friends outside of the home, and that can lead to gangs. These kids are crying out for help.”

The National Council of La Raza reports that many undocumented youth don’t learn of their immigration status until high school, not an uncommon experience among undocumented students at Santa Fe South, which can prompt feelings of betrayal and worry, further widening the chasm between youth and their parents. That stress is often exacerbated, causing students to act out as Font suggests, when because of their status, they can’t share experiences like driving a car or holding a job with their peers, according to the American Behavioral Scientist.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, many undocumented youth are also from low-income families, lacking access to critical social services, making programs like the LCDA’s Parents as Teachers program invaluable to local families. The program recently received an international award for its work to strengthen parenting and communication skills in Oklahoma. In 2016, counselors engaged with 150 families to help navigate those cultural differences. Funded by the Department of Mental Health, families commit 12 to 16 weeks to the program, which begins with a simple family dinner.

“We take it for granted, but some families have never had dinner together,” said Font.

The program encourages family members to leave their phones at the door, and pushes parents to look beyond traditional Latino family roles. Font says oftentimes the dad has no responsibility for raising children or their educations, but by the end of the program a new family perspective usually leads to parents splitting roles evenly. Unfortunately, Font fears what Oklahoma’s current budget deficit means for prevention programs like this supported by DHS and mental health.

Gorton says NPS celebrates the diversity and richness of culture immigrants bring, hoping to help students and parents alike understand that rather than an either/or choice of culture, they can choose both. NPS offers facilitators to parents who have limited English proficiency, encouraging their involvement with their children’s home behaviors, like study skills, homework and reading logs.

“Starting in elementary school, we ask parents to be reading every day to their kids, or have their child read to them in their native language or English,” said Gorton. “All literacy is good literacy.”

Gorton believes partnership between the school and parents is a major component of every child’s success, and while that can be challenging for non-English speakers, she and her team are committed to embracing and engaging with all parents.

“Part of it is teaching them how they can be part of their child’s journey in the education world,” said Gorton.

Grant encourages her immigrant students to embrace their heritage, despite occasional experiences with natives who shun celebration of other cultures.

“People have the misconception that immigrants want to come and force their culture and language, or take away American tradition,” said Grant. “That is not true. We are proud of our heritage and culture, but we’re in a country where we can celebrate and blend both cultures together. I think it’s beautiful.”

According to the LCDA, Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, accounting for 53 percent of the U.S. population growth since 2000. Currently, Latinos represent 18 percent of the country’s overall population, projected to grow to 30 percent by 2060. Font recalls in 1990 U.S. Grant High School was about 10 percent Latino; now the school is 85 percent Latino, a population mirrored at schools like Capitol Hill and Southeast. Norman Public Schools’ student population is 15 percent Hispanic.

“The minority are the mainstream population,” Font says of OKCPS, which is currently 53 percent Latino with Font predicting that population to double in the next 10 to 20 years. “Our future is about learning to live with people who think and live differently.”

The challenge: Channeling fear

Three years ago, Font discovered OKCPS suspended more Latino students than any other school district per capita, so he worked with the superintendent to solve the issue. The suspended students were brought to LCDA where they did their school work and engaged in anger management and drug and alcohol programs as needed. Font reports 80 percent of the more than 300 kids who took part in the program never got another referral. Though the program remains funded through LCDA, OKCPS as a district bowed out, though some individual schools and Santa Fe South schools have continued the partnership.

Font said since DACA was rescinded, behavior challenges for immigrant students at local schools have increased. According to the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, the most significant stressor by far for undocumented immigrants is the fear of deportation, impacting their daily lives and causing constant concern.

“We have seen an escalation of kids getting in trouble at school, shouting at teachers and these are kids who had never done this before,” said Font. “The pressure placed on them by the community and at home [caused them] to act out.”

LCDA has provided counseling and therapy for students and parents, teaching them about controlling anger and staying grounded even in turmoil.

“We’ve expanded our services from treatment to more prevention,” said Font. “It’s $10,000 to educate them now versus $30,000 later to put them in jail.”

When Grant’s students struggle with fear and insecurity she tells them to imprint those moments in their brain, so they will always have a heart for others who’ve been where they are.

“Don’t forget where you came from; don’t forget how much your parents struggled to put food on the table,” Grant challenges her students. “Once you make it, come back and continue making a difference to those who are following in your footsteps.”

Grants sees those former students and members of the surrounding communities doing just that as they volunteer their time and advice to senior students working on their capstone projects. Students experience potential careers by meeting with local professionals.

“If they want to be a doctor or lawyer or teacher or engineer, they see what it’s going to take and that they must work extremely hard,” said Grant. “They see what that career would be like and it motivates them to pursue that degree.”

Through this program and required community service hours, Grant said students also learn the importance of giving back to the community.

The challenge: Higher education

In the United States, 82 percent of native-born youth receive a high school diploma, but only 54 percent of undocumented immigrant youth will receive theirs, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project. United We Dream reports that only five to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates continue to higher education, and even fewer earn a degree.

Grant said the challenge begins with her English Learner students in achieving high enough ACT scores to get into college.

Grant encourages those students to take ACT prep classes, where they can practice the test numerous times. She tells her students the more they take the test, the less anxious they will feel.

The LCDA offers an annual scholarship program to any Oklahoma high school student, but Font has seen that even this money, typically presented in $500, $1000 and $2000 scholarships, only goes so far for kids in poverty.

“They reach a point where the money is gone,” said Font. “We see juniors dropping out because they have to work. It’s heartbreaking to see a 20-year-old who has done all the right things but who can’t finish school.”

Undocumented youth are ineligible for Title IV Federal financial aid, including student loans, work study and grants, and, according to the Center for American Progress, the issue of college affordability has kept many of these students from pursuing and completing postsecondary educations.

Font dreams of offering a work study program to local college juniors and seniors where they can continue school and earn a living by being matched with an organization in their field of interest to learn on-the-job skills.

For those who beat the odds and graduate from college, Grant said it’s an accomplished feeling, for the students and their former teachers.

“They are impacting their own families and their community,” said Grant, who is thrilled to see her first group of students graduating college. “Along with the other teachers here, I planted that seed.”

Education leads to a beautiful future

Though Grant is hesitant to take credit for the success of her students, the Harvard Educational Review reports that support from family, educators and other caring adults is the most crucial factor in the academic success of undocumented youth. Access to extracurricular activities and advanced coursework, like Grant helps provide her students, boosts resiliency and is correlated with greater educational achievement, according to the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences.

Grant said the mainstream Oklahoma City population has no idea what immigrant students endure to earn their educations.

“You have to work hard to get what you want and survive,” said Grant. “On a daily basis, we see kids working one or two jobs to help support their families and pay the bills. But they are resilient, they push through and they accomplish things even they never thought were possible.”

The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies reports that undocumented immigrant students do in fact demonstrate higher levels of resilience, leadership and civic engagement than their peers. One such former student motivates Grant to keep teaching, encouraging and fighting for her students.

“We had a student graduate last year who, in the eighth grade, had a SWAT team come into her home,” said Grant. “She had a gun held to her face as she was trying to protect her little brother.”

The girl’s mom was sent to prison, and she and her siblings to foster care. Grant and fellow teachers became her support system, encouraging her to set the tone for the rest of her family.

“She continued to show up,” said Grant.

Captain of the softball and basketball teams, active in Student Council and with 400 hours of community service, the student was awarded a scholarship to the University of Central Oklahoma, where she decided she wanted to become a family and child attorney. Her siblings have remained in school, and her mom will soon be released, obtaining an education herself while in prison.

“She’s one I will never, ever forget,” said Grant. “She could have gone down a negative path, but she’s resilient. She’s taken a negative experience and turned it into something beautiful.”

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