Lost in Translation

‘One-way street’ for immigrant integration in schools

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star
Cruz Tapia joins in a discussion among members of the United Northwest club about a documentary video on diversity during an after-school meeting at Northwest High School in Indianapolis. To his right is Maria Ulloa-Loza. Claudia Montes (left) is the college and career readiness adviser for English learners.

During his first week of school in the United States, fifth-grader Cruz Tapia climbed to the top of the slide on the playground.

Just being in school was part of the promise that America represented to his Mexican family. Like so many others, his family moved here to chase a vision of a better life, free of fear and filled with boundless opportunities.

In America, Tapia wouldn’t have to pass gangs with guns on every street corner. In America, he and his sister could attend school, instead of one having to work to afford the other’s education.

But when he went down the slide that day at recess, what awaited him at the bottom was a reminder that America, too, can have its own set of hostilities and challenges for immigrants.

What awaited him also made him think his family wouldn’t last long here.

Three of his classmates shoved him to the ground. “Go back to your country,” they told him. “You don’t belong here.”

Tapia couldn’t speak English, couldn’t read it, couldn’t understand it — like thousands of other immigrant children who have come to Indianapolis from across the world over the past two decades.

He felt as though teachers didn’t want to teach him. He sat in front of a computer trying to learn English every morning until lunch, went to gym class and then returned to the same classroom to sit in front of the computer again.

Lost in school, he asked other Mexican students for help in Spanish. They ignored him.

“What makes them belong here?” he wondered to himself. “And what makes me not belong here?”

Schools pour resources into programs for English language learners. They hand out backpacks filled with school supplies. They train teachers to better instruct non-native speakers. They hire interpreters.

But experts say something else — something that might ease the transition of immigrant students in America, something that might help tamp down prejudices and bridge hateful divides — is too often overlooked.

That missing piece, they say, is teaching their U.S.-born and bred classmates to understand, empathize and welcome their immigrant classmates, to develop what is called “cultural competency.”

“That’s one that we probably need to do a better job of, honestly,” said Jessica Feeser, who coordinates Indianapolis Public Schools’ programs for students learning English as a new language.


Since 2006, Indiana has gained tens of thousands of immigrant students. Out of 1 million students in Indiana’s public schools last year, more than 53,000 were classified as English language learners — which understates immigrant enrollment, because it doesn’t include students who have mastered English skills since their arrival.

“Our English learners are just as important as any other student in the classroom,” Feeser said. “It’s our obligation to make sure we’re meeting their needs.”

To show what diversity at the school looks like through their eyes, students in the United Northwest International Club at Northwest High School have been working after school to film a documentary for IPS administrators.

With the help of the Latino Youth Collective, they have interviewed one another, fellow students and teachers: What does diversity mean? Where are you from? Do you think people treat others differently because of what they look like?

Northwest sophomore Irwin Fernandez thinks he knows why other students treat him differently.

“Probably because they hate us,” the 16-year-old said.

His uncle told him what Americans think of Mexicans: “We’re taking their jobs, we’re taking their place, we’re taking their money.”

But his relatives in Mexico look up to Fernandez as the first in the family to go to the U.S. to earn his education — and he wants to do well in school to make them proud.

“Keep it up,” they tell him. “Don’t get in trouble.”

That can be a challenge when immigrant students say they feel like they’re often prodded and provoked by their classmates. At its worst, the ignorance of other students seems malicious. But even if it’s unintended, it can still feel constantly irritating.

“This morning, somebody asked me, ‘Do you have potatoes in Africa?’ ” said Northwest senior Mariam Sylla, 19, from Guinea. “I said ‘no’ because his question was stupid.”

Of course there are potatoes in Africa. But she grows tired of all the questions from so many people who don’t seem to know much about her country — often not knowing where it is, or that it even exists.

Are you Jamaican? Are you Nigerian? Do you wear clothes in Africa? Do you live in a jungle? Have you seen a lion?

“Everybody thought Africa was a zoo,” Sylla said.

Our prejudices and biases often surface — along with our curiosities — when we ask questions about how an immigrant’s national and ethnic origins are different from our own, said Rachel Peric, deputy director of Welcoming America, a national network that fosters integration between U.S.-born and foreign-born Americans.

“All of us have biases and things that we have heard that are incorrect and often hurtful,” she said, “But the question is, are we working to overcome those biases and to approach people with love?

“Or,” Peric said, “is the desire to hurt and insult someone?”

Communities should strive to actively welcome — not just tolerate — immigrant students, she said.

“For a long time, in general, we’ve approached immigrant integration as a one-way street, so a lot of the onus has been put on newcomers to adapt,” she said.

Northwest senior Moji Olorode, a 17-year-old from Nigeria, has learned to ignore the bullies who tell her to go back to her country — yes, she’s heard that, too — because, she said, they stop when you don’t pay attention to them. They’ll keep at it if you retaliate.

She also firmly rejects the idea that she should have to change who she is to fit in here.

“Since you’re no longer in your country, most people want you to blend into the cultures here,” she said, “And it just isn’t right. Being African makes me proud.”

For these Northwest students, time seems to have eased the culture clashes. They found friends, mix their own languages with English and speak in American slang. They dream of going to college.

For Tapia, it has been eight years since he was confronted at the bottom of the playground slide. He is now 18 and a senior at Northwest.

Coming to America — and everything he has endured with that — has made him grow up faster, he said. He now sees the world as having two types of people: those who want to help you, and those who want to harm you.

“We didn’t make the decision to come here,” he said. “They don’t know what you had to do to come here, or what you have to do to stay here. They don’t know what it’s like to work twice as hard to learn the language.”

America still represents opportunity, but the glossy vision is sanded down a little. Life is better but still bumpy.

After he graduates from high school this year, Tapia plans to enlist in the military. Maybe, he thinks, people will see him differently when he’s fighting for this country.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Indianapolis Star. Stephanie Wang is a reporter for the Star. Contact her at stephanie.wang@indystar.com.

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Thanks to LUNA for providing the translation for this series.

‘Calle de un solo sentido’ para la integración inmigrante en escuelas

Las escuelas se enfocan en aprendices de Ingles pero, seguido pasan por alto la falta de entendimiento cultural de sus compañeros de clase nacidos en EU.

Durante su primer semana de escuela en los Estados Unidos, Cruz Tapia alumna de quinto grado escaló a la cima del resbaladero en el campo de juegos.

El tan solo iniciar escuela fue parte de la promesa que América representó para esta familia Mexicana. Como muchas otras, su familia se mudó aquí para perseguir una visión de una mejor vida, libre de miedos y llena de oportunidades sin límites.

En América, Tapia no tenía que pasar a gangas con pistolas en cada esquina. En América, él y su hermana podían ir a la escuela, en lugar de tener que trabajar para poder costear la educación del otro.

Pero cuando se resbaló ese día durante el recreo, lo que le esperaba abajo era un recordatorio que américa también puede tener sus propias hostilidades y retos para inmigrantes.

Lo que le esperaba también le hizo pensar que su familia no iba a durar mucho aquí.

Tres de sus compañeros de clase lo empujaron al suelo. “Regrésate a tu país,” le dijeron. “No perteneces aquí.”

Tapia no podía hablar inglés, no podía leerlo, no podía entenderlo – como miles de otros niños inmigrantes que han venido a Indianapolis de todas partes del mundo desde las dos últimas décadas.

El sentía como que los maestros no querían enseñarle. Se sentaba frente a un computador todas las mañanas, hasta la hora del almuerzo, intentando aprender inglés, iba a clase de educación física y regresaba al mismo salón para sentarse nuevamente frente al computador.

Perdido en la escuela, les pedía ayuda a otros niños Mexicanos en Español. Lo ignoraban.

“Que es lo que a ellos los hace pertenecer aquí?” se preguntaba asimismo. “Y que es lo que a mí no me hace pertenecer aquí?”

Las escuelas derramaron recursos en programas para aprendices del idioma Ingles. Repartieron mochilas llenas con útiles escolares. Entrenaron a maestros para mejor instruir a los no-nativo hablantes. Contrataron intérpretes.

Pero los expertos dicen algo mas – algo que pudiera facilitar la transición de estudiantes inmigrantes a América, algo que pudiera ayudar apisonar prejuicios y superar las divisiones de odio – es muy seguido pasado por alto.

Esa pieza faltante, ellos dices, es enseñar a sus nacidos y criados en E.U. a entender, empatizar y dar bienvenida a sus compañeros de clase inmigrantes, a desarrollar lo que se llama “aptitud cultural.”

“Esa es una en las cuales probablemente necesitamos hacer un mejor trabajo, honestamente,” Jessica Feeser dijo, la que coordina los programas de las Escuelas Públicas de Indianapolis para estudiantes que están aprendiendo el inglés como un nuevo idioma.

Desde 2006, Indiana ha aumentado miles de estudiantes inmigrantes. Del 1 millón de estudiantes en las escuelas públicas de Indiana el año pasado, más de 53,000 fueron clasificados como aprendices del idioma Ingles – lo cual subestima la inscripción de inmigrantes porque no incluye los estudiantes que han dominado las habilidades de Ingles desde su llegada.

“Nuestros aprendices de inglés son tan importantes como cualquier otro estudiante en el salón,” dijo Feeser. “Es nuestra obligación asegurarnos que estamos satisfaciendo sus necesidades.”

Para demostrar como la diversidad en la escuela se mira a través de sus ojos, los estudiantes del Club Internacional de los Estados del Noroeste de la Preparatoria Northwest han estado trabajando, después de escuela, en filmar un documental para los administradores de las Escuelas Públicas de Indianapolis (IPS por sus siglas en inglés)

Con la ayuda del Colectivo de Jóvenes Latinos, se han entrevistado el uno al otro, compañeros de trabajo y maestros: Que significa la diversidad? De dónde eres? Crees que las personas tratan a otros de diferente forma por como se miran?

El estudiante de segundo año de Northwest, Irwin Fernández, cree saber por qué otros estudiantes lo tratan diferente. “Probablemente porque nos odian,” dijo el de 16 años de edad.

Su tío le dijo lo que los americanos piensan de los mexicanos: “Les estamos quitando sus trabajos, les estamos quitando su lugar, estamos tomando su dinero.”

Pero sus familiares en México admiran a Fernández por ser el primero en su familia al ir a los E.U. para obtener su educación – y quiere salir bien en la escuela para hacerles orgullosos.

“Sigue adelante,” le dicen. “No te metas en problemas.”

Esto puede ser un reto ya que los estudiantes inmigrantes dicen que se siente muy seguido que son molestados y provocados por sus compañeros de clase. En su peor momento, la ignorancia de otros estudiantes se mira sospechosa. Pero aunque se no intencional, puede sentirse constantemente irritante.

“Esta mañana, alguien me preguntó, ‘Tiene papas en África?” Mariam Sylla, de 19 años, de Guinea, estudiante de cuarto grado de Northwest dijo. “Yo dije ‘no’ porque su pregunta era estúpida.”

Claro que hay papas en África. Pero ella ya está cansada de todas las preguntas de tantas personas que parecen no saber mucho acerca de su país – seguido no saben dónde está, o que siquiera existe.

Eres de Jamaica? Eres de Nigeria? Usas ropa en África? Vives en la selva? Has visto un león?

“Todos piensan que África es un zoológico,” dijo Sylla.

Nuestros prejuicios a menudo salen a la superficie – junto con nuestra curiosidad – cuando preguntamos acerca de cómo los origines nacionales y étnicos de un inmigrante son diferentes a los nuestros, dijo Rachel Peric, directora delegada de Bienvenida América, una red nacional que fomenta la integración entre americanos nacidos en E.U. y extranjeros.

“”Todos tenemos prejuicios y cosas que hemos escuchado que son incorrectas y a veces hirientes,” ella dijo, “pero la pregunta es, estamos trabajando para sobrepasar esos prejuicios y acercarnos a las personas con amor?”

“O,” dijo Peric, “es el deseo de herir e insultar a alguien?”

Las comunidades deben de esforzarse en dar una viva bienvenida – no solo tolerar – a estudiantes inmigrantes, ella dijo.

“Por mucho tiempo, en general, nos hemos acercado a la integración de inmigrantes como una calle de un solo sentido, entonces mucha de la carga se ha puesto en que se adapten los recién llegados,” ella dijo.

La estudiante de cuarto grado de Northwest, Moji Olorode, una chica de 17 años de edad de Nigeria, ha aprendido a ignorar a los intimidantes (bullies) quienes le dicen que se regrese a su país – sí, ella también ha escuchado eso – porque ellos paran cuando uno no les hace caso. Ellos siguen haciéndolo si tú te desquitas.

Ella también rechaza firmemente la idea de que tienes que cambiar quien es para poder encajar.

“Ya que no estás en tu país, la mayoría de la gente quiere que te mezcles dentro de las culturas de aquí, y eso, simplemente no es correcto. Ser Africana me hace sentir orgullosa.”

Para estos estudiantes de Northwest, el tiempo parece haber facilitado el choque de culturas. Encontraron amigos, mezclaron sus propios idiomas con el inglés y hablan caló americano (jerga). Sueñan con ir al colegio.

Para Tapia, han sido 8 años desde cuando fue confrontado al final del resbaladero del área de juegos. Ahora tiene 18 años y es un estudiante de cuarto grado de Northwest.

Venir a América – y todo con lo que ha tenido que lidiar – lo ha hecho madurar más rápido. Ahora ve que el mundo tiene dos tipos de personas: aquellos que te quieren ayudar y aquellos que te quieren hacer daño.

“No tomamos la decisión de venir aquí. Ellos no saben lo que tuviste que hacer para venir aquí, o lo que tienes que hacer para poder quedarte aquí. Ellos no saben lo que es trabajar el doble de duro para aprender el idioma.”

América sigue representado oportunidad, pero la visión lustrosa está lijada un poco. La vida es mejor pero aun con topes.

Este año, después de que se gradúe de la preparatoria, Tapia planea enlistarse en el militar. Talvez el piensa, que las personas lo verán de diferente forma cuando esté peleando por este país.

choice words

Colorado’s Spanish spelling bee is growing as more students, from different backgrounds, take on the challenge

File photo from 2012 National Spanish Spelling Bee. (Courtesy of National Spanish Spelling Bee)

Almost 50 Colorado students are getting ready to compete this weekend in a spelling bee where they’ll be spelling words in Spanish.

In addition to breaking down words letter-by-letter, in Spanish, students must include special marks, such as accents or capital letters, in the right places.

“One of the common misconceptions is that it is easier to spell in Spanish than it is in English, but it absolutely is not,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director for the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, the organization hosting the state spelling bee. “They don’t just memorize words. Cognitively, it’s a good exercise for them.”

Most students who participate are native Spanish speakers, but a handful of students are native English speakers who learn Spanish as a second language. Garcia said two years ago, a second-grade girl whose first language was English placed second in the state bee.

“All she did to prepare was read,” Garcia said. “She was just a voracious reader.”

2018 Colorado Spanish Spelling Bee
    When: Starts at 9 a.m. Sat. April 7
    Where: Kepner Legacy Middle School
    911 S. Hazel Court, Denver

    Free for the public to watch

Colorado’s Spanish Spelling Bee is in its third year — and is growing. This Saturday’s competition will be held at a school in Denver, but will include students from 14 schools across the state, including from as far away as Telluride.

“Every year it has been growing,” Garcia said. The first year the state competition included about 34 students from nine or ten schools, he said.

Students from second through eighth grade can participate. The students first participate in a spelling bee at their school to earn a spot at the state competition.

Three top spellers get to go to the National Spanish Spelling Bee in San Antonio.

David Briseño, founder and the coordinator of the National Spanish Spelling Bee, said this year’s national competition is drawing students from about 13 states. Next year, organizers are working to host the national competition in Colorado.

“If we do that, we want to get even more of our kids involved,” said Garcia.

2017 winners of Colorado Spanish Spelling Bee. (Photo provided by Colorado Association for Bilingual Education)

Colorado students were among the first to participate in the national spelling bee when it started in 2011, back before the state competition existed.

David Smith, a librarian at Escuela Bilingue Pioneer in Lafayette, has held a spelling bee for students at the dual language school since he got the job about five years ago.

“Every school should be involved,” Smith said. “The whole idea of a spelling bee is it gets kids interested in spelling, and it just gets them more aware about words and vocabulary. For bilingual students, it’s important to study. There’s a lot of things that are similar in the languages, but it also makes them very aware of the differences so they can be better writers.”

At Escuela Bilingue Pioneer, students have library time as one of their specials (like art and physical education), twice a week. Smith said he has an ability to help students practice spelling and get excited to participate in the competition during that time.

Every second- through fifth-grade student first takes a written spelling test to qualify for the school’s spelling bee. Smith also shares the results of the spelling test with student’s teachers in case it can be used as an extra data point showing how students are learning or give them ideas about what parts of language students might need extra help on.

Smith said that when other educators reach out to him for advice about starting their own spelling bee at their schools, he suggests starting small.

Many of the other participating schools, not all of which have bilingual programs, have students participate in the spelling bee on a volunteer basis.

Smith said many students get excited once they hear about the contest and teachers can encourage more of them to practice and sign up.

Educators say the excitement, and contests, grow as students who get to the spelling bee and don’t win vow to practice more and return the next year.

“If you’re there and you see it,” Garcia said, “it’s really fun.”

Schools participating in 2018:

  • Escuela Bilingue Pioneer
  • Angevine Middle School
  • Ashley Elementary
  • Academia Ana Marie Sandoval
  • Columbine Elementary
  • Valdez Elementary
  • Telluride Intermediate
  • University Hill Elementary
  • Foster Elementary
  • Telluride Middle School
  • Global Village Academy
  • Gust Elementary School
  • Godsman Elementary School
  • Denver Language School

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.