Amanda Clymer's office may not look like ground zero for America's most important domestic challenge. But as the director of the Dallas school district's intake office for immigrant students who shepherds children and their families through the world of schools, she and her colleagues help them become fully American.
Ever since the nation spawned public schools, campuses have been more than institutions of education. They are the means by which children from different points on the map learn to navigate their new world. In big districts such as Dallas', which has 62,000 students from more than 100 countries learning English, failure in this task will have terrible social consequences, from poverty and lack of personal mobility to economic stagnation.
On the other hand, if principals and teachers succeed, their graduates will have the tools to advance through their careers and reshape society. They will become the doctors, leaders, engineers, teachers, carpenters, nurses and even journalists that we need. And they, along with their native-born peers, will redefine American culture, just as earlier generations of students left their mark on what it means to be an American.
Clymer and her colleagues will make sure families understand the paperwork required to enroll. They will provide literacy materials for parents to use with their kids. They will send students away with school supplies. They will employ specialists to work with students throughout the year. And they will deploy those specialists to help teachers deal with the needs of students who may not understand the language, culture or mores of American life.
Dallas is dealing head on with a situation that districts around the country are facing. In big cities like Denver, Los Angeles and Miami, as well as in the rural parts of states like Texas, Georgia and Iowa, the integration of immigrants into local schools, as well as their advancement to graduation, is a major undertaking.
So, how to deal with this challenge once students make it past the office of people like Amanda Clymer?
A big part of the answer is for schools to have parenting programs and/or liaisons that engage immigrant mothers and fathers in educating their children. This means way more than attending parent-teacher nights or school functions, although those matter. Effective parenting programs and skilled liaisons teach immigrant parents how to approach teachers, work with their children on assignments and navigate the process of applying to colleges and for financial aid.
Another part of this challenge is helping students master English fast. Unfortunately, that is not always easily done.
A series of essays this summer in the American Educator, published by the American Federation of Teachers, discussed strategies to help foreign-born students acquire English.
The bottom line is there is no clear roadmap to get students up to speed fast in English. Some elements help, like clear instruction and good classroom routines. But much remains unclear.
"In short, we have many promising leads but not a very good understanding of how to help ELs (English learners) learn high-level academic content and skills despite limited English proficiency," wrote Stanford's Claude Goldenberg, an education professor.
The immigration bill that Washington will return to in September does not get into education, per se. But the work of educators will greatly shape how well immigrants now and in the future become part of American culture. Many of those families have high expectations, but they need schools and educators like Clymer guiding their children into the mainstream of American life.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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