WHEN MY son was in elementary school, he gained a new friend, a youngster from Vietnam who had just arrived in this country. Dat and a younger brother came not with their parents, who remained in Vietnam, but in the care of their two teenage brothers. I remember reading the small card Dat carried that designated him--an 8- or 9-year-old--as the family member best able to answer questions in English. The thought of this little boy presenting that card as he confronted a strange and scary new world simply took my breath away.
Dat was a good student. He and my son were ahead of their classmates in math and frequently were paired to work together on more challenging independent activities. Both flourished in math until the day came to enroll in eighth-grade algebra. My son Joe got in. Dat did not.
Dat's older brothers were unquestioningly respectful of school authority and would not challenge the school's decision. Because I knew how advanced Dat was in mathematics, I phoned the school on his behalf. Now--some 20 years later--I remain appalled and angry at the response.
The principal, an excellent administrator who had brought another school to Blue Ribbon School status and truly was a very caring man, said no. Dat's English skills were not sufficient to allow him to handle the language involved in algebra, and he didn't want him to fail. I pushed back, describing what I knew of Dat's prior performance. Just give him the opportunity to show what he can do, I pleaded. But the algebra class proceeded without one of the students who undoubtedly would have excelled in it.
Then what I had feared, happened. Not having eighth-grade algebra moved Dat off the college track. He was put into what he later told my son were "baby" classes, and the future he might have had changed significantly. Joe and Dat grew farther apart, as they were no longer in the same classes, and over time, we lost track of this talented young immigrant.
Why tell this story? The common perception of Asian immigrants is that they are bright, they work hard, and they succeed. So if this still happened to Dat, how often does something similar happen to Latino students and others for whom English is not the first language and for whom low expectations are too frequently the norm? During a January 2008 two-day symposium on English-language learners (ELLs), one attendee pleaded with the experts to understand the depth of frustration for immigrant parents who--after filling out the language survey paperwork--find their children assigned to low-level classes that too often limit their opportunities to excel and move into the mainstream, even when their intelligence and work ethic are strong. The symposium was sponsored by ETS and the National Council of La Raza and brought together scholars, multiple agencies and organizations, and practitioners. Experts presented statistics and the research and raised issues related to better accountability and performance.
Eugene Garcia of Arizona State University presented data from the Centers for Disease Control. In 2005, 24% of U.S. babies born were Hispanic. He also noted that one out of every five children in the U.S. between birth and age 8 is Hispanic, that 79% of these children live in just nine states, and that in 25 other states, 10% or more of the children aged 8 and under are Hispanic. Rather surprisingly, Census Bureau data say that over half of ELL children in our schools were born in the U.S. These children make up 75% of the ELL students in grades K-5 and 57% of those in grades 6-12. Data from the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition show that between 1995 and 2005, more than 10 states experienced greater than 200% growth in the number of ELL students. The highest growth was in Kentucky (417%), Indiana (400%), and South Carolina (372%). David Francis of the University of Houston presented data showing that by 2015, ELL students are expected to be 30% of our school-age population. …