Helping the New Generation: The School Integration Process for Immigrant Youth at Whitford Middle School

By Vasti Cruz 

Children of Hispanic heritage constitute 42% of Whitford’s student population, which is astronomically high compared to the state average of 22% (“Whitford Middle”). Supporting these students is paramount to not only the kids themselves, but to the greater community.

On a warm, September Thursday afternoon, I drowsily descended the school bus after a long day at OES, my high school. Drained, I thanked the bus driver as I climbed down the steps and prayed for a sudden energy spike. Outside, the sky was a mild orange—the end of summer looming, and a new season, fall, nearing. I walked across the pavement lined with green shrubs peppered with red buds toward the blue entrance of a well-worn, concrete building, and to the right stood an American flag, hoisted up to full mast, and next to it, a sign: WHITFORD MIDDLE SCHOOL. As I neared the building, hunched kids loitered outside of the entrance, waiting for their rides. One girl had pink highlights in her hair, knee-high Converse sneakers, and fingerless gloves to complete the look. Another was talking to her mother on the phone in Spanish, asking her when pickup was: “Mamá, cuando vas a recogerme?” Weaving through the people, I walked towards the door. I noticed that there were various flyers on it, each with a counterpart: one in English, one in Spanish. I opened the heavy metal door with chipping, navy blue paint into the main office. I, along with ten other tutors, was there for AASK (Aardvarks Advocating for Skills and Knowledge), a program at Whitford Middle School in Beaverton, OR that helps predominantly Latino kids who are English language learners (ELL) with their literacy.

Children of Hispanic heritage constitute 42% of Whitford’s student population, which is astronomically high compared to the state average of 22% (“Whitford Middle”). Supporting these students is paramount to not only the kids themselves, but to the greater community.

Right as I entered the school, a distinct smell overcame me, one familiar from my summer TA days at William Walker, an elementary school also part of the Beaverton School District. The thick air smelled of sweat and grime combined with men’s body spray, but also of sweet perfume—the smell of young, try-hard vulnerability. In the office, many people talked on their phones, some in English, some in Spanish. Emptiness filled the halls; school wasn’t over yet. Rows and rows of beige lockers lined up in all directions enclosed the inside of the school. They were matched with the beige of the waxed linoleum floors. I turned left into the teacher’s lounge. Inside, stood a wooden table with six red faux leather chairs surrounding it. I hurriedly speed walked into the room, making a beeline to the coveted tapestry fabric-covered couch, fending off competing tutors.

Once everyone was settled in the room, Maria McIvor, a caring, amiable woman with wispy, short, brown hair framing her face, a jean jacket, and colorful bracelets gave us a rundown for the day. Maria, along with Gisela Walitzki, a friendly, talkative, German woman with gray hair and a green OES jacket, are the faculty leaders for the AASK program. AASK is a tutoring program where, twice a week, students from OES go to Whitford and tutor students who are struggling academically. All of the middle schoolers in AASK are Latino, and for many of them, English is their second language. As tutors, our job is to be their mentor while helping them with English literacy. There are students in the program who are recent US arrivals, adjusting to a new language in an unknown country. These kids are in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Whitford, so during the tutoring sessions, they are taught new vocabulary words and grammar structures. For many of these students, integration into a new school in a different language is far from easy. Without programs like ESL and AASK, many fall through the cracks and struggle in high school.

During one of the AASK sessions, I asked my tutee, Helen, what it’s like moving to the US. Helen is an average sized eighth-grader at Whitford, with cropped shoulder-length hair and tan skin. She came to the US from Mexico in January. “It’s pretty here,” she told me in between sips of Little Moo chocolate milk, “I love Oregon’s nature” she continued. When I asked her what the integration process was like, she responded,“English is really hard to learn. All around me just sounds like buzzing. I don’t have many friends, but the fact that my cousin was already here has helped me. The ESL classes are really helping, because now I know more words” in English.

Another tutee shared Helen’s optimistic tone about the ESL program. I asked Oscar, a tall and stout eighth-grader clad in sweatpants and a hoodie, what he thought about adjusting to a new education system. “School in America is very different from school in Guatemala,” he said through a mouth full of mozzarella stick, marinara sauce all over his lips. “At first, it was really hard to adjust to learning everything in a new way, especially math. In Guatemala, I had to walk to school. Here, I’m lucky enough to go on the bus,” he added.

I asked him what he thought of ESL.

“I love it—it’s my favorite class. I like learning new words everyday, and now I’m more confident to start conversations with my peers” who don’t speak Spanish.

Overall, many immigrant students are often grateful for the opportunity to be at school and be constantly learning. Despite their happiness, many immigrants face difficulty in the home. According to a study by the RAND Corporation, Latino migrants are usually low-income and may have suffered some sort of trauma. To be at school is a huge achievement for them, yet they still have needs that aren’t fully recognized by state or federal policymakers, such as the language barrier (McDonnell xi). That is why it is up to the school districts—and ultimately the educators themselves—to figure out what these kids need.

In addition, many students succumb to the emotional stress school causes, specifically bullying for being from an immigrant family. During one of the AASK sessions, I was assigned to tutor Cristal, a shy yet defiant sixth grader, for the day. Cristal, with long, brown hair covering the red rosary hanging from her neck, walked into the cafeteria, her snack of carrots and string cheese in one hand, the other wiping tears from her eyes. Maria approached her, and after having a talk, the two decided that Cristal and I would be better off going into a separate room for more privacy. Once the young girl was alone, she opened up, and in between sniffles, explained what had happened. According to Cristal, students were bullying her. “This guy and his friend were being so mean to me,” she explained. “They said, ‘here comes the donkey’. They also told me that my family is so poor, just because my parents come from Mexico.”

According to a study published in the Child Development journal, “Discrimination refers to negative behaviors toward someone because of their group membership… It can occur at…the peer level, such as peer exclusion or teasing” (Brown 1477). Comments like this inevitably hurt a student. These words not only affect their self-esteem, but trigger them to change the way they externally present themselves (McDonnell). After comments like this, kids are prompted to put on a stronger front in order to prevent being made fun of. As a result, students with negative attitudes about school tend to have lower academic performance (Brown). Luckily for Cristal, there was a counselor who came into the room to help her through the emotional trouble.

Evidently, Oregon isn’t the only state with ESL programs implemented in their schools. In 2003, “more than 50 percent of first-grade children in California’s public schools were classified as Hispanic/Latino, as opposed to only 42 percent among eighth-graders” (Gould et. al 1). This loss of students over the years alludes to elementary and middle school dropouts. Oftentimes, students don’t get the support from home they need to thrive academically, causing them to quit school at an early age. Immigrant children have to cope with the “difficulties associated with the adoption of a new language, and therefore may necessitate more one-on-one teaching, remedial classes, adjunct teachers, and so forth” (1). This vulnerable population of students are susceptible to dropping out because they fall behind in the fast-paced education system, having to cope with learning in a new language in addition to their home situation.

 

 

On a cool, Friday afternoon, I checked into the main office at Whitford, letting the receptionist know that I was here for an interview with Irma Laskaris, the school’s bilingual liaison. “She’s been talking about it all day,” the woman said. “Irma is so excited to tell you about the ESL program.” I thanked her, and took a seat on one of the wooden benches. As I was waiting, I heard many staff members on the phone speaking both Spanish and English, communicating with parents about their children. About fifteen minutes later, Irma, a tall woman with black suede knee-high boots, hoop earrings, bangs, and French manicured nails holding a bedazzled Starbucks cup, walked down a dark hallway, greeting me with a warm hug and a contagious smile. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “My day isn’t over until I’ve finished making the last phone call.” I followed Irma down the grey-walled hallway into her office, making myself comfortable in a wooden chair across her desk. After a few minutes of getting to know one another, her friendly personality eased any nervousness and apprehension. Right away, Irma urged me to call her by her first name. After we finally got to know each other in person after a long chain of back and forth emailing, Irma’s passion for her role at Whitford shone through. Irma works for the Multilingual Department in the Beaverton School District, formerly known as the Welcome Center. Representatives from the Department are sent to and located in schools in the Beaverton School District. At Whitford, Irma’s day consists of testing new students who speak another language on their English level, in addition to interpreting meetings with both families and teachers. As Irma best puts it, “Whenever anyone needs a Spanish translator, they come running to me. I love it— this job makes me feel useful.”

To test new students on their English, Irma uses the Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey, known more commonly as the Woodcock-Muñoz test. This test measures, through cards, the student’s level of English, starting from a kindergarten level through college-level. When Irma is testing a student, she starts at a kindergarten level, showing images. If the student gets the word right, Irma moves onto the next round. As the test progresses, the words become harder. The Woodcock-Muñoz test is comprised of seven sections: picture vocabulary, verbal analogies, letter-word identification, dictation, story recall, understanding directions, and passage comprehension (“Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey III”). Irma walked me through the test. I flipped through the first section of the test, picture vocabulary. The images ranged from “ball” at the kindergarten level, to “water wheel” at the high school level. To determine what ESL level the student gets assigned to, Irma administers the test and continues to ask the questions until they get five wrong in a row. At that point, she stops the test and puts them in an ESL class according to their English level.

However, beyond school testing, there is also statewide testing. The English Language Proficiency Assessment (ELPA) is an English state test designed for English language learners (ELL). Students in the ESL program from elementary school through high school are required annually to take this test (“English Language”). Irma briefly mentioned during our interview that although this assessment does not directly affect the student, it provides the state with general statistical information on how each school district is serving its immigrant ELL population and helps with grant provision, which “would go back to ESL funding” (Laskaris). According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012-16 American Community Survey, at the time, 11,300,000 unauthorized immigrants were in the US, many of them being children (“Rising Child”). These grants would not only help the youth immigrant population in Oregon, but would aide these kids all over the country with their own ELPA testing.

Irma is deeply connected to this job and feels it is her duty to help this underprivileged community; it’s her way of giving back. Irma is an immigrant herself—she came to the US from Cuba with her family at the age of two. At that time, Irma recalls the lack of help she and other immigrant students in her community had, with no ESL classes or any integration program. “I wish I had ESL growing up at school,” she reflects. She struggled in school because her parents didn’t know English either, but were taking ESL classes. However, despite the classes, Irma recalls that her parents still lacked confidence in speaking English. “My parents were afraid to go to parent-teacher meetings and even to doctor appointments because there was not enough support for immigrants,” such as interpreters or brochures in Spanish. Irma stressed that it was hard to keep up in school with minimal academic support at home. “I’m glad we have programs like this in place now, to help our students, especially in preparation for high school.”

Fourteen years ago, Irma began at Whitford at the main office, counseling students as well as answering phones. She was one of the only Spanish speakers in administration, and she noticed there was a need for translators—every time a Latino student or parent needed translation, she was the first one to be called. A few years later, she officially became a bilingual facilitator and has been working at Whitford ever since (Laskaris).

I asked Irma if there was any support for ELL students in addition to the ESL classes, specifically extracurriculars. She mentioned two: AASK and Chicas. The latter is a program geared towards Latina girls in an effort to help them with their self-esteem (Laskaris). In addition to academic support, it is also important to aid students socially and emotionally (Esquivel 213). For some immigrant students, their past included stress or even trauma. This stress can be amplified at times upon arrival to the US. Sources of stress in immigrant children include poverty, difficulties learning a new language, and adjusting to a new culture among others (213). Socioeconomic status is the greatest stressor, and has been for decades. In 1980, Puerto Rican children living in poor urban areas were found to be subject to health problems, low self-esteem, depression, aggression, and academic problems (213). Learning a new language and having confidence in speaking it is difficult. Like Irma and her family, many students are afraid to practice their English in class. This phenomenon is known as elective mutism (213). In order to combat this fear and get families to support their students, Whitford has a program for parents to stay updated on school events. Rompiendo Barreras, or Breaking Barriers, is an evening program in Spanish where teachers and school staff talk to parents about school events, announcements, and even classes on how to better support their children. Common topics include how to deal with cyberbullying, as well as drug and alcohol prevention (Laskaris).

However, being Whitford’s bilingual liaison can come with making difficult decisions, including saying goodbye to some students. Several weeks later, after missing AASK tutoring for about a month, I returned to Whitford for a session. I was elated to see the progress of my tutees, both in English and their other classes. To my surprise, I didn’t see one of my regular kids, Orlando—a short sixth-grader with a playful sense of humor. I asked Oscar, another tutee, where Orlando was, and he said, in English, that “Orlando moved. I don’t know where he is, but people say he moved back to Mexico.” I was taken aback—Orlando seemed to be thriving at Whitford. I remembered what Irma had mentioned to me in her interview about students who leave Whitford—some students just disappear without much notice. However, despite these abrupt departures, Irma does her best to follow up and help with the transition into the student’s new school as best she can; she is truly invested in each student. “I worry about the kids who leave because I hope they’re getting the education they need” (Laskaris). Irma goes out of her way, even out of school hours, to call the student’s family to ask how they are. When I asked Irma why students leave, she replied, “There are numerous reasons for why kids leave, which depend on their home circumstances. For some families, the rent becomes too expensive. For others, the parents find new jobs in a different city. In a few cases, the family goes back to their home country whether it be their choice or not” (Laskaris). When able, Whitford sends the student’s file to the new school. This institution has taken great steps to increase the support given to their immigrant population by going beyond the minimum. Programs have been implemented not only for the students, but for their families, which strengthen the household and optimize academic support in the home. Through these programs, Whitford serves as an example for the country on how to support a child with a complex past marked with migration.

Currently, despite some policies enacted by the US political leader, the US is still experiencing a high influx of immigrants, especially those of Hispanophone countries. With so many new immigrants coming into the US, new students need the academic as well as the emotional support in order to thrive in a new school system. Thankfully, ESL education is definitely on the rise. Faculty and staff like Irma and programs like AASK are truly invested in the holistic wellbeing of the student. Although both schools as well as governments take the numerous struggles of moving into consideration, there is still much work needed to be done to best support these students. The fact that some students will leave the institution based on circumstances beyond the school’s control magnifies the need to take action and create better, uniform, nationwide policies in order to best aid youth immigrants with their integration process. These kids are the new generation and will ultimately grow up to be integral parts of society, whether it be in Beaverton, or outside communities.

 

Works Cited

 

Brown, Christia Spears, and Hui Chu. “Discrimination, Ethnic Identity, and Academic Outcomes of Mexican Immigrant Children: The Importance of School Context.” Child Development, vol. 83, no. 5, 2012, pp. 1477–1485. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23321175.

 

“English Language Proficiency Assessment (ELPA21).” Portland Public Schools,

    www.pps.net/Page/930. Accessed 21 May 2019.

 

Esquivel, Giselle B., and Merle A. Keitel. “Counseling Immigrant Children in the Schools.” Elementary School Guidance & Counseling, vol. 24, no. 3, 1990, pp. 213–221. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42868919.

 

Gould, Eric D., et al. “Does Immigration Affect the Long-term Educational

    Outcomes of Natives? Quasi-experimental Evidence.” National Bureau of

    Economic Research, Oct. 2004, http://www.nber.org/papers/w10844.pdf. Accessed 9

    Mar. 2019.

 

Laskaris, Irma. Personal Interview. 12 April 2019.

 

McDonnell, Lorraine M., and Paul T. Hill. Newcomers in American Schools: Meeting the Educational Needs of Immigrant Youth. RAND Corporation, 1993, file:///Users/vasticruz/Desktop/MR103.pdf.

 

“Rising Child Migration to the United States.” MPI, Migration Policy Institute,

    www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/us-immigration-policy-program/

    rising-child-migration-united-states. Accessed 20 May 2019.

 

“Whitford Middle School.” Public School Review, http://www.publicschoolreview.com/

    whitford-middle-school-profile. Accessed 15 May 2019.

 

“Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey III.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, http://www.hmhco.com/ programs/woodcock-munoz-language-survey-iii. Accessed 13 Apr. 2019.

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