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Educating our Children

Despite the fact that all children in the United States are supposed to have access to free public education, many of our children still fall through the cracks. Immigrants' children, many of whom are U.S. citizens, are particularly vulnerable to the inequities of the public school system.

Access - though guaranteed to all by the 1980s Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe - is a problem for many children. As seen in "The Puppeteer," homeless children may be prevented from registering because they lack proof that they live within the school district. Undocumented immigrants face the fear of discovery and deportation whenever they come in contact with an official government body, including a public school. Once in a school, immigrant children often become victims of anti-immigrant hostility, particularly in areas with high immigrant populations.

As education systems move toward increasing standards for what schools should teach in math, reading, science, history and the arts, schools that are graded on their students' progress may be motivated to place students with limited English proficiency (LEP) in with "disabled" children, whose scores are excluded from the school's report. In addition, children with limited English proficiency may be misdiagnosed as learning disabled and placed in special education programs that do not offer access to advanced or college-preparatory courses. Immigrant students are often placed in a lower grade level than the one they completed in their homeland, based on their language skills not their knowledge of curriculum.

Zero tolerance policies, which enforce predetermined and immediate consequences to infractions of school conduct codes, do not allow flexibility for students and parents who may not understand the policies because of language comprehension. Zero tolerance does not take into consideration the adjustment challenges immigrant children face, or the inter-racial conflicts prevalent in many communities.

Parental involvement remains an important factor to ensuring immigrant children's success in public schools. But immigrants may be inhibited from getting involved by the lack of translation services, a limited understanding of the school system, the lack of transportation to schools, or because of outside demands of family or employment. Teachers frequently tell immigrant parents to help their children with the coursework, a task that is next to impossible for parents who didn't learn the same material during their own education or who don't speak English well.

In its fullest sense, equal access to education might include ensuring comprehension for those who do not speak English as their first language. The issue of bilingual education as a remedy for LEP students has been widely debated in political and academic arenas alike. The National Education Association recognizes that changing demographics in public schools create a critical need to find ways to teach children with limited English proficiency. Linguists and educators present differing opinions over which approach to teaching LEP students provides the best measure of success. Proponents of English-only initiatives claim that bilingual education has failed to keep students in school, but they do not take into account the complexities of students' learning styles, teacher training or job opportunities that might encourage students to drop out.

Read more about education access for all children from the National Coalition of Advocates for Students.

See the Glossary for definitions of different types of bilingual education and summaries of legislative and judicial decisions affecting immigrant children.

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