Growing Up Multi-Cultured / The benefits of growing up in a cultural melting pot
To qualify for kindergarten, Hope had to fail a test — a Spanish test. Had she passed, the Carrollton fifth grader would not have spent the last five years in Thompson Elementary’s dual language program alongside other kids who failed the same test (much to their parents’ approval). Since kindergarten, this group of native English speakers has studied some subjects in Spanish and some in English on their way to becoming fluent in both.
But Hope and her Spanish-test-failing peers make up only half the class. The other half failed an English test (but passed the Spanish one) in order to join the program. The Spanish-speaking kids and the English-speaking kids are working toward the same goal — biliteracy and bilingualism — from opposite starting points. And they’re doing it together.
“It was more than an opportunity to learn Spanish,” says Hope’s mom, Tracy McCain, who regrets not gaining the language while she grew up in South Texas. “It was an opportunity to be fully submerged in it. We thought that would give her the best opportunity to become proficient and truly bilingual.”
Unlike a weekly Spanish elective or an immersive program geared to English speakers, Hope’s class allows her to witness and participate in social situations with Spanish-speaking children every day. The kids collaborate on assignments and play together on the playground. At special cultural events, they dress up and share food and stories from their respective heritages. And when staffing changes pushed English as a Second Language (ESL) students into the class last year, Hope befriended a girl who knew very little English. “They mix them in pretty well,” McCain says simply — and that’s the whole point.
Hope’s dual language class looks like others across Dallas-Fort Worth, where school districts have begun to see our area’s vast cultural array as an opportunity to give children a linguistic leg up. Each year, Texas’ population swells not just with tax-weary Californians but with immigrants from Burma, Vietnam, El Salvador and an atlas of other nations. Many newcomers are Hispanic; some are undocumented.
At the beginning of last school year, these undocumented families sparked a spate of nigh apocalyptic headlines about the “crisis” or “flood” of immigrant children and how schools — and American pocketbooks — must brace for impact. It’s true: Schools should prepare for students who may need academic support, and like all educational programs, that support will have a price tag. But looking at immigrants through a lens sullied by politics, stereotypes and media sensationalism can prevent parents from seeing the possibilities for their U.S.-born children, such as learning a second language by playing kickball with kids who speak it fluently.
Whether or not politicians believe those kids should be here, they are here. They’re sitting in our classrooms every day as lawmakers tease out the details of their futures; it is up to schools and parents to make the best of reality and, with the right lens, find ways for everyone to thrive.
“Regardless of their residency status, these are still children with their future ahead of them and we as a society have a moral obligation to help these children be successful,” says Ricardo González-Carriedo, Ph.D., assistant professor of bilingual and ESL education at the University of North Texas. He calls the influx of children from other nations an “unstoppable demographic trend” — one that Texans should treat as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. “That diversity already exists in our state. We need to take advantage of it and use it to educate all our children to the best of our ability.”
Who they are
To embrace the diversity that immigrants bring to our community, we must first shatter the stereotypes and sort the true concerns from the media hype. “I think the fears stem from not knowing,” says Elda Rojas, Ph.D., director for newcomer and ESL programs at Dallas Independent School District. She lists the most popular misconceptions that Americans have about immigrants: They are academically untalented, they don’t want to learn English and they don’t want to assimilate with mainstream U.S. culture. “Given the opportunity, they do,” Rojas maintains. “They come not just to survive; they come to thrive. They want to give back.”
It’s also important to realize that not all immigrants speak Spanish and not all arrived without papers. Fort Worth ISD, for example, serves kids from 98 countries who speak 60 languages. And though a large percentage of those kids are Hispanic, others hail from Asia and the Middle East. Some are undocumented; others are legal residents or refugees.
Karen Molinar, assistant superintendent with leadership and learning at Fort Worth ISD, reveals that school administrators do not ask for documentation from incoming students, as doing so could fall afoul of a federal anti-discrimination law. “The support of the school is the same regardless,” she says.
In the courtroom, papers matter. In the classroom, they don’t: All immigrants, regardless of documentation, receive the same newcomer opportunities.
Understandably, parents worry that children from other countries, especially kids who don’t speak English, may be academically behind U.S.-born children, leaving native speakers bored and restless as teachers play catch up with the newcomers.
But the idea that immigrant children are thrown into mainstream classrooms on day one and left to fend for themselves is not always the case, at least in some local schools. Districts like Dallas, Fort Worth, Denton and Lewisville have programs to help kids transition into English-speaking classes so they are not trailing behind. In Fort Worth, for example, newcomers in grades three through five attend special language center campuses. They practice core subjects at an accelerated pace while taking art, music and physical education with native English speakers. By the time the newcomers graduate to mainstream core classes, they're ready to learn alongside their U.S.-born peers so that no one is left behind and no one is twiddling his thumbs.
Some districts do not have extensive newcomer programs, especially at the secondary level. As a result, teachers at times must accommodate for students with very little English at the expense of their classmates. A high school math teacher in Mesquite ISD, who preferred not to be identified, admitted that her class time is strained when she has more than a handful of newcomers in the room. “When there are so many, it’s definitely a hindrance [to everyone’s learning],” she laments, adding that a program like Fort Worth’s might lift the burden. While such programs cost taxpayers money, the upside is that when immigrants enter the classroom with U.S.-born kids, no one is at a disadvantage and everyone can reap the benefits of being together.
Growing up global
McCain enrolled Hope in the dual language program because she was looking to the future. The mom believed that her daughter would be a step ahead of her peers on the eventual job hunt if she had a second language on her resume — and that’s probably true; a survey last year by the University of California Los Angeles found that companies preferred bilingual employees over monolingual English speakers. But even kids in traditional English-speaking classrooms can see career benefits simply from sitting next to immigrants.
Beth Crooms, senior director of human resources at a locally based national health care company, says that employers increasingly look for diversity, not just in race or sex but in experience and perspective. Just as a job seeker with a distinct viewpoint is more valuable, so is a job seeker with the ability to recognize and respect a range of distinct viewpoints. “The more somebody’s experienced what [a particular perspective] means, the better they’re able to understand and adapt to it and realize its value,” Crooms explains.
So when American children solve a world problem or form a four-square league with their immigrant peers, they hone skills that could one day land them a corner office. “That’s of great advantage for our students when they can learn from and work collaboratively with individuals that represent diverse cultures, diverse religions and lifestyles and understand the importance of mutual respect,” Rojas says.
And as companies do business across oceans and borders, kids who learn the importance of international perspectives will have an edge when they start sending out job apps. “That definitely contributes to them being ready for the workforce down the road,” Crooms says. “When you have employees that understand and appreciate that there’s a difference in cultures, they are easier to work with because they understand why somebody’s looking at a problem differently from them.”
By the time they graduate, children who grow up alongside kids from other countries are primed to make connections across borders because they’ve been doing it all along. Schools that create opportunities for these interactions are easier to come by as North Texas diversifies by the day. But ensuring that kids are exposed to other cultures may still require intentionality on the part of parents, whether it’s in choosing schools, enrolling in dual language programs or attending cultural events in other corners of the community.
Cynthia Jaird, Ph.D., principal of Central Elementary in Lewisville, grew up speaking Spanish in a poor Hispanic neighborhood. “That’s all I knew. I never went outside of that community,” she says. When she ventured beyond the barrio for college, Jaird was floored by the “whole other world” that awaited her (and how little she knew about cultures outside her own). Now she shepherds one of the most diverse campuses in Lewisville ISD, hoping to instill in kiddos the cultural dexterity she didn’t develop until adulthood. “It’s so important for parents to understand that although they’re part of a community, their children are going to go off and the world may not look like what their school looks like right now or what that community looks like,” she stresses.
Central Elementary mom Stephanie De La Rosa understands the comfort of a like-minded community and was relieved to find campuses in Lewisville full of kids who share her Hispanic children’s cultural heritage. But she’s also thankful for the respect her three kids have cultivated for people from other backgrounds, regardless of their legal status. “Look how much you have to gain from everybody,” she says. “My youngest, her best friend is from Pakistan. They don’t eat the same food that we eat, they don’t play the type of games that we play, but she gets to learn all that stuff. That’s awesome.”
De La Rosa raves about Central’s cafeteria, which features dishes that pay homage to the diverse student population. A weekly menu that transcends burgers and pizza visually reflects the variety of perspectives found in each classroom. And like the lunches that everyone partakes of, viewpoints can be shared and exchanged. “It’s a constant reminder that there’s another perspective, that there’s not just one way to do things or to view a situation. So they’re constantly practicing that flexible thinking,” says Alexandra Babino, Ph.D., Gifted and Talented facilitator at Central. She loves watching students ask questions about the differences they see in each other, practicing the art of standing in others’ shoes. “No one [perspective] is inherently better or worse, but they’re both valuable. And that’s where the richness comes in.”
A wealth of perspectives
Deeper relationships blossom from empathy, the richness that comes when kids learn to live outside themselves and value another’s point of view. According to Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project, current middle and high school students value empathy and fairness less than personal achievement and selfish gain. Though the goal of academic success should not be tossed aside willy-nilly, the devaluation of empathy can birth selfish consequences like unkindness, bullying and even violent behavior.
Like calls to like, and research has demonstrated that empathy grows most naturally among people from like backgrounds. But multiple studies in the ’80s and ’90s showed that collaboration in the classroom encouraged kids from unlike backgrounds to develop the same empathy and respect for each other’s perspectives.
That’s why González-Carriedo’s three children attend dual language programs in Denton elementary schools alongside Spanish-speaking children: to stretch their worldviews beyond the familiar. González-Carriedo, originally from Spain, and his wife, born in the U.S., want their kids to master both languages but also to glean all they can from their immigrant peers. The amazing thing, González-Carriedo reveals, is how the language barrier isn’t really a barrier at all — not to kids.
“From day one, you saw them together in the class, playing together, learning together, working together on different activities,” he says of his daughter’s kindergarten classroom. “Children have a great ability to connect to each other regardless of their cultural or linguistic background, and that’s something that any time we walk into a diverse classroom we can see it.”
When children step outside their cultural bubbles and play and learn with others unlike them, they become experts at finding common ground and building empathy, not judgment, in that space.
“As students are working collaboratively, they’re working in groups, they’re talking to each other, I just don’t think they see the differences,” says Suann Claunch, ESL director at Fort Worth ISD. “I think they see more similarities and they’re able to build on that and make it a richer experience for everyone.”
Because in the end, kids are just kids. They play on the playground, they share their crayons (maybe) and they pull the crusts off their PB&Js. They don’t ask each other for documentation, but they do grow from each other’s experiences. And as these kids swap markers and stories, unbeknownst to them, they’re molding their future selves into savvy professionals and compassionate citizens. “It just looks like school,” says Claunch. “You have a room full of 8-year-olds and they’re all being 8-year-olds. They may have a different color of skin and wear different clothes and speak with different accents, but they’re all there to do school.”