Immigrants: Providing a Lesson in How to Adapt

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The 20-room annex at William G. Hibbard Elementary School shows just how much immigration has changed the 1,200-student school.

Before the annex opened here last fall, some class sizes hovered in the 40s. Students, mostly immigrants and the children of immigrants, attended classes in stairwell landings and hallways.

The Northwest Chicago neighborhood where the pre-K-6 school sits has long been a port of entry for new immigrants. Assistant Principal Ron Lyons, who has worked at Hibbard for more than two decades, recalls an influx of Greek immigrants early in his tenure. These days, the students' names printed on paper snowmen hanging outside Nancy Samra's 1st grade classroom represent a range of nations: Carlos, Ruqia, Cuong, Vannak, and Walid.

Almost half of Hibbard's students lack proficiency in English. The school's English-as-a-second-language program enrolls children who speak 17 different languages. Hibbard offers bilingual programs that teach students partly in their native languages: Spanish, Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian, Arabic, Vietnamese, and Khmer--for now.

"We're always in a state of flux here," Lyons says.

Beginning with the huge influxes of immigrants to the United States in the early part of the century, public schools have had to adapt to immigrant students--however reluctantly--and, in turn, help those students adapt to America. And the politics of the day have always helped shape the schools' response to the newcomers.

While the 1990s are likely to hit a century high in the sheer number of immigrants, 1910 remains the high point for the percentage of the U.S. population made up of those born elsewhere. That year, 14.7 percent of Americans were foreign-born; last year, the figure was 9.8 percent.

In the century's first decade, 9 million immigrants arrived in the United States, most from Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe. At the close of the century, immigrants are most likely to come from Latin America and Asia.

The trends are no fluke.

Laws passed in the 1920s to restrict immigration set a downward curve that didn't reverse itself until the 1970s. A 1965 law undid the national-origin quotas set in the early part of the century that barred virtually all Asian immigrants and favored those from Northern and Western Europe.

In 1990, compared with 1910, proportionately more foreign-born residents had been in the United States 10 years or less. Such new arrivals are less likely to be fluent in English. And Jeffrey S. Passel, an immigration expert at the Urban Institute in Washington, points out that the issue of illegal immigration is relatively new. Immigrants here illegally, he says, are more likely to fear contact with institutions such as school.

Immigration is still largely an urban phenomenon--about half of all immigrants arriving in the 1980s lived in just eight metropolitan areas--but far from exclusively so. Immigration has touched suburban and rural schools and communities as well as urban areas. ("Growth in the Garden")

How schools accommodate their immigrant pupils is inextricably linked to broader societal attitudes about immigration. And schools throughout the century have found themselves in a recurring pendulum swing between assimilation and pluralism.

Becoming Americans

It's easy to point to schools' explicit adaptations to immigrant and non-English-speaking students: bilingual and ESL classes, most obviously. But some aspects of school now considered "mainstream" emerged in the century's early years at least partly in response to the flow of immigrants.

"Immigration really has the impact of introducing and enlarging a new set of things we now commonly take for granted in school," says Marvin Lazerson, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania. "It broadened the definition of what schools ought to be about."

In the early 20th century, urban schools, to a large degree, were about helping immigrant children become better and healthier citizens.

Immigrants served as a partial trigger--or at least a crucial clientele--for a range of social services in school: from hygiene lessons and vaccinations, to extended-day and summer programs, to school meals and playgrounds. Schools were seen as one of the best places to reach and assimilate newly arrived immigrant students and their families.

Education historians say such newcomers also gave added impetus to the expansion of kindergarten, vocational education, and civics.

Compulsory-attendance laws were crafted in part to reach immigrant children, who figured disproportionately in big cities' truancy rosters. Immigrants were not the exclusive motivator for attendance laws, "but a very powerful one," says David B. Tyack, an education historian at Stanford University. "The notion was: How can they become American if they don't go to school?"

Some school adaptations that seem decidedly modern have roots in the early part of the century. Today's newcomer programs for recent immigrants share some parallels with "steamer" or "vestibule" classes the New York City schools held to give new arrivals a crash course in English. Newcomer programs today often offer intensive language help and an orientation to the American school system and the cities where their students live.

While policymakers continue to grapple with difficult issues of ensuring such students' equal access to a good education, the question of school access at the turn of the century was often a starkly literal one: Many immigrant students were turned away because there was simply no room.

Schools across the country varied widely in how much they were affected by immigration and, in turn, how they responded to it. But the perception of the immigrant as a distinct "other"--early in the century when Southern and Eastern European ethnic groups were considered "races"--helped shape the ways schools adapted.

Historians point to a movement among educators in the first quarter of the century--supported by the U.S. Bureau of Education and such civic and community groups as the YMCA--to foster the "Americanization" of immigrant students. Schools were seen as places where polyglot populations went to be homogenized and absorbed into the larger society.

Published accounts of New York City schools in the early 20th century talk about classes to eliminate foreign accents, courses on "manners and conduct of life," and instruction in home economics and sewing to teach girls how to maintain an American home. Schools reached out to Americanize immigrant parents, too, by offering naturalization classes and free lectures.

Some historians view Americanization as coercive, nativist, and denigrating. Others see it as having provided immigrants needed structure and direction in a difficult new environment.

But most agree that the movement took on a harsher bent as anti-foreign tensions heated up at the time of the First World War. Many states passed laws banning German in classrooms, on the street, and in church. In the wake of the war, many states legislated English as the basic language of instruction or forbade foreign-language study in the elementary grades.

But as the flow of new immigrants waned in the 1930s, so too did society's fears. A new movement took hold in what some describe as a gentler approach to assimilation. Without waves of newcomers to manage, the leaders of the "interculturalism" movement of the 1930s and 1940s focused on "the second-generation problem."

Progressive educators, academics, and race-relations experts introduced school programs to reduce racial, ethnic, and religious tensions and incorporate minorities on equal terms into the American mainstream.

Interculturalists talked about "our history" and "our American way of life" and how various immigrant groups contributed to that collective notion.

But pluralism had its limits.

Some interculturalists pushed to affirm cultural diversity; others wanted simply to acknowledge it and keep the affirmation muted lest it disrupt national unity.

In 1945, Stewart Cole, the director of a group promoting intercultural education, warned: "National cultural unity must not be jeopardized by an exaggerated development of the forces of cultural diversity."

The intercultural movement foreshadowed another shift of the pendulum, spurred by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. With the push for "multicultural" education, schools again would have to confront tensions surrounding assimilation, unity, and diversity.

The Language Debate

The civil rights movement was a turning point, pushing American society and its schools to address inequities among the poor and racial and ethnic minorities--and, eventually, language-minority students.

A slew of court rulings and federal laws securing equal access to school programs focused attention on the needs of immigrant and non-English-speaking children. Special programs were designed to help youngsters who, in the inelegant jargon of the experts and bureaucrats, were labeled "limited English proficient," or lep.

The debate over language instruction for LEP students, however, is not a new one.

Contemporary bilingual programs, in which students learn some academic subjects in their native languages, bear some resemblance to German-language programs in such heavily German cities as Cincinnati and Indianapolis from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century. The programs were offered largely as a means of luring German immigrants away from parochial schools, which often taught in German.

Such programs were not without their critics. In 1870s St. Louis, the district offered a German-language kindergarten and offered German study in the elementary grades. Opponents, especially the Irish, denounced such classes as costing too much, interfering with the regular curriculum, and threatening the standing of the English language.

The anti-German sentiment incited by World War I ended whatever was left of the early language accommodation in schools.

But in the past quarter-century, two U.S. Supreme Court rulings have radically reshaped the school landscape for LEP and immigrant children.

In its 1974 decision in Lau v. Nichols, the court held that the San Francisco schools had to offer special help to enable LEP students to participate equally in school. In its argument to the high court, the San Francisco district reflected the view of many schools at the time, says Peter Roos, a civil rights lawyer based in that city.

"The kids had to adapt to the school, not the other way around. The argument then was there's no obligation to adjust in any way the district's educational program," which was designed for English-speaking "Anglo" students, Roos says.

Then in 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that schools could not deny illegal-immigrant children a free public education.

This decade in California, the state most heavily affected by immigrants, voters approved a ballot initiative in 1994 to deny illegal immigrants access to most public benefits, including a free education, and another in 1998, to virtually eliminate bilingual education in the public schools. The first measure has been blocked in the courts; the second is being carried out while court battles continue.

So, as the century draws to a close, immigrants again are making their presence felt and pushing questions to the fore: What does it mean to be an American? What is it immigrants should be assimilating to? And on whose terms?

Such questions are immediate ones for Chicago's Hibbard Elementary. Black-and-white photographs and stories of several students and their families who have immigrated to the city's Albany Park neighborhood hang in the school hallway.

In addition to promoting diversity with its "Changing Worlds" project, Hibbard plans to use the project to make the curriculum more relevant to its mostly immigrant population.

"We highlight the different cultures, but yet we're always promoting patriotism and talking about what it means to be American," says Roquel Landsman, Hibbard's curriculum coordinator. "We're promoting tolerance. It's not 'us and them' at this school. We're all 'them' here."

PHOTO: Students representing 19 nations line up for a group photo at a New York City public school in 1926.

Vol. 18, Issue 20, Pages 34-35

Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as Immigrants: Providing a Lesson in How to Adapt
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