The Impact of Immigration on Local Public Schools

Immigration is more than just a chapter in a textbook for some local schools.

For our November 2017 issue, we look at immigration in the city: Who we were, who we are, and who we’re becoming.

Anne Van Kirk, principal at Symmes Elementary in the Sycamore Community Schools district, has been at the school for 29 years. She remembers during one of her first years, when she was teaching second grade, having a Japanese student in her class who spoke zero English. “It was a rarity to have an [English-learning-student] at that time,” says Van Kirk. “But it was so much fun. It’s amazing when you see a child come in speaking no words at all, and by the end of the year you’re asking them to be quiet. And now, every classroom has a handful of children who are learning English.”

Immigration has had a significant impact on local school districts such as Sycamore, which has seen a steady uptick in its foreign-born student population over the past dozen years or so. Out of the roughly 5,300 children enrolled in Kindergarten through 12th grade, there are nearly 500 students born outside of the U.S., hailing from more than 50 different countries—spanning every continent except Antarctica—and speaking more than 40 different languages. At any given time, somewhere between 300 and 350 Sycamore students will be involved in the district’s English-learning program.

“The population has increased, but it’s also gotten more diverse in terms of different countries, socioeconomic status, and cultural backgrounds,” says Emily Williams, who oversees Sycamore’s ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) curriculum. The district employs 15 ESOL teachers across seven buildings. Each student in the program is catered to as individually as possible, but all of the ESOL instruction is done in English (teachers use a lot of visuals), and the schools do their best not to pull the kids out of primary classroom instruction periods. Often, the biggest obstacle is less about what language the student speaks and more about the quality of any previous education.

“The real challenge is when you have students where the educational systems in their home country weren’t good or were nonexistent,” says Van Kirk. “They likely would struggle if the instruction was in their own language.”

These immigrant students arrive via a number of different scenarios. Many are from professional families—some living here permanently, some temporarily—who have started their own businesses, work for multinationals like P&G and GE, or work with local hospitals or universities. Some are political refugees who are here seeking asylum. And others are here on visitor visas, often because of a family member seeking specific medical treatment.

Refugees have dominated the news of late, but that last grouping has also stirred up controversy and confusion locally. In December 2015, The Cincinnati Enquirer published an article about the increasing number of Arabic-speaking students in Mason City Schools, which was attributed largely to families here on visitor visas seeking treatment through Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s Destination Excellence program. The piece made waves due to a subsequent lawsuit—it featured a photograph of a young, U.S.-born, English-speaking girl of Egyptian descent who had no affiliation with Destination Excellence. The girl’s father, who filed the suit against the paper and the district, said the family became the subject of Islamophobic persecution due to the article’s claims that the influx of Arabic-speaking students put a financial and scholastic strain on Mason schools. And though the girl in the photograph wasn’t even part of the program in question, the article still presented a rather careless depiction of Destination Excellence and arguably student immigration in general.

“These are usually very wealthy families who are coming in [for medical treatment], have very strong ties to their home country—that is a requirement of a visitor visa,” says Christopher Pogue, a local immigration attorney with The Fleischer Law Firm. “That typically means they have a great job and own real estate back home. They’re agreeing to the visitor visa because they are so well off, they don’t even need to work while they’re here. [And] they are renting or owning in that school district.”

In other words, these families are funding their children’s public education the same way any other family does, immigrants or not. The language and cultural barriers may in fact be a challenge for the schools, but so are children with behavioral issues or physical and learning disabilities or a district’s constant need for updated technology.

“At times it can be a burden because we do need additional resources, but it enhances our school and our community so much,” says Van Kirk of Sycamore’s ever-increasing diversity.

“In my opinion, the more diverse and interesting your background, the more interesting your community will be. And we have so many interesting people,” adds Williams. “The more we tap into that and share those things, the more appreciative we can be of each other.”

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