GREENSBORO — Some of the most vulnerable students in Guilford County Schools are immigrants and refugees who fled with their families to escape war, violence or persecution.
They resettled here hoping to be educated and to start new and better lives.
What they often find instead is an education system stacked against them.
They are immersed in classes where only English is spoken. The school system doesn't have enough people or resources to translate all of the nearly 130 languages and dialects local students speak.
They are forced to take standardized tests written in a language they don’t fully understand — whether they’ve been in the United States for a year or a month.
They tend to be clustered in high-poverty, racially segregated schools. They are bullied for being different.
It's not even clear how many of these students are enrolled in local schools. Officials legally cannot ask about a student's immigration status. There is no official count of immigrants and refugees in Guilford County.
Experts say such challenges exist in school systems across the country — and have for decades — despite a growing population of English learners. They make up 9 percent of all U.S. public school students.
A News and Record analysis of standardized test and graduation rate data shows a significant gap between achievements of students whose first language is not English when compared with other students their age. However, the data reflect all students who receive English as a second language services, not just immigrants and refugees. Most ESL students are not immigrants, but speak a first language that's not English.
About 5,523 students in Guilford County Schools are considered English learners, fewer than 10 percent of the roughly 72,000 students enrolled. Another 4,924 are former ESL students who have demonstrated English proficiency on a language test.
Other data examined by the News & Record show:
- The graduation rate was 63.6 percent for English learners in the Class of 2014. Guilford's graduation rate for all students was 88.5 percent.
- Just 5.6 percent of Guilford's English learners met college readiness benchmarks as measured by the ACT in 2013-14. The rate for all students was 58.7 percent.
- Overall, English learners in Guilford County Schools demonstrated college and career readiness on 13 percent of tests taken in 2013-14, the most recent data available. The rate of grade level proficiency for English learners was 20.5 percent.
- Most of the 20 Guilford schools with the highest percentages English learners are also the most segregated. Minority student enrollment at 12 of those schools is higher than 90 percent, what researchers call “intensely segregated.” All but one of those schools have poverty rates higher than 50 percent.
Mayra Hayes, the ESL director for Guilford County Schools, ticked off a list of ways the school system tries to help English learners and their families: Saturday adult literacy classes. After-school tutoring. Partnering with area agencies for mental health services.
Important documents are translated into the five most commonly spoken languages, but that leaves out another 1,325 English learners who speak other languages.
Raleigh Bailey, who retired two years ago as director of the Center for New North Carolinians, praised the efforts of Hayes and Guilford ESL teachers in general for their work with these students.
“Those (ESL) teachers are bleeding hearts, and some of them just go way, way, way beyond what they’re called to do," he said. "And the social workers connected with those programs do the same."
Still, he and some advocates and students say problems persist despite those efforts.
Bailey said he couldn't think of a coordinated effort of the school system, county and city governments, and other organizations to meet the needs of immigrants and refugees.
That population, Bailey said, is invisible in Guilford County. They lack representation. They lack political power.
"They don't have a good voice," he said.
U.S. public schools, including local ones, typically teach ESL in a way that runs counter to what experts say is best. Teachers immerse students in English, communicating with them only in that language instead of building on their skills in their native languages.
There are practical reasons for that. It's not feasible or affordable for a school system as diverse as Guilford's to provide interpreters for every language and dialect spoken.
Students who don’t speak English but have strong literacy skills in their native languages would benefit from having some communication in the language they know, said Deborah Short, a national researcher of newcomers programs and English language instruction. That could help with understanding context, especially with newcomers, she said.
Encouraging students to retain their first language also would help them to continue working on skills at home and to discuss with their families what they're learning, she said.
“Any knowledge that you have developed in any language is knowledge you have in your brain,” Short said.
It’s not necessary to drop one language to acquire another, she said. “That’s not really how the brain works.”
In one or two years, students typically grasp enough conversational English to talk with teachers and peers. That’s true even if they have not had consistent formal schooling.
But a student may need four to seven years to become fluent in the more complicated academic language used in textbooks and on tests, Short said.
Some research indicates that fluency can take even longer — up to nine years. For example, students might struggle to understand directions asking them to infer, summarize or justify even after they have become sufficiently fluent to carry on a conversation in English.
Students new to the United States who have had little to no formal schooling would also have to make up for the years of instruction they missed.
“Think of all the stuff that they’ve missed from kindergarten on through,” said Betty Stratford, a former media assistant at Mendenhall Middle School, where she oversaw a program that paired immigrants and refugees with tutors and helped with such needs as buying eyeglasses that might help them in the classroom. She wrote a book about her experiences working with those students.
The Common Core standards, the uniform academic standards in math and English language arts that most states adopted about eight years ago, adds another wrinkle. Students are expected to have a deeper understanding of what they learn and they are expected to do more writing — both challenges for English learners. North Carolina and other states have also pulled back from Common Core in recent years as political opposition to the standards intensified.
When they didn’t understand what was happening in class, some students would doodle, daydream or put their heads down on their desks. Stratford said some students would get upset, even cry, when they couldn’t complete an assignment because they didn’t understand the instructions.
Some students could complete calculations in math, but they wouldn’t know what to do when directions on standardized tests asked them to compute or indicate, Stratford said. Reading or language arts tests stymied students with such concepts as rhymes or idioms like, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
“If you don’t know what the word ‘synonym’ means, what are you going to do now?” Stratford asked.
She would fill notebooks with laminated pages of words or concepts students should know in high school, such as antonyms and synonyms. At the end of each school year, she gave copies to students heading into freshman year of high school.
Even such students as Phun H, a recent Page High graduate who took Advanced Placement courses, see their peers struggle with the language in their assignments.
H was 4 or 5 when her family, who are Montagnards, resettled in Greensboro after fleeing Vietnam. She took ESL classes in elementary school. She went on to excel academically and graduated in June. She plans to attend UNC-Chapel Hill after spending a year abroad.
At Page, she briefly tutored students in ESL and saw the difficulty of some of their assignments.
“They’re given work that they don’t really understand,” H said.
The work required a larger vocabulary — some of which H said she didn't even know. She assumed the students she tutored didn’t know them either.
“I thought that was absolutely ridiculous,” she said.
Lost in translation
In Guilford County, the sheer number of languages spoken poses another challenge.
Most Guilford students in ESL programs — more than 3,300 of them — speak Spanish. Arabic, Vietnamese, Nepali and Hindi are the next most common languages.
It's difficult to get interpreters and translated documents for some languages and dialects, said Hayes, the system's ESL director.
The school system has a database of translated forms. It also has about 35 interpreters who speak the top five languages, Hayes said. Teachers and principals sometimes call interpreters in other school systems or counties.
The Center for New North Carolinians at UNC-Greensboro is another resource for translating Hmong and Sui, both Chinese dialects. The center also helps train interpreters who work in the school system.
At Guilford's Newcomers School, where immigrant and refugee students new to the United States can get focused instruction for up to one year, about 260 students speak 39 different languages. The school has four interpreters.
Still, Principal Candice Bailey sometimes needs to get help from one of the interpreters available elsewhere in the school system.
When that doesn’t work, she tries to find an older student in the school who speaks the same language, although not to interpret for another student's parents. She has to get more creative to communicate with parents when there are no other resources for interpreting. She uses Google's translation app — communicating one word or phrase at a time.
With those language barriers, some immigrant and refugee parents cannot help their children, said Bailey, the longtime advocate for refugees.
"They cannot help them with homework. They cannot understand the forms they’re supposed to sign every day," he said.
Both parents in those families typically work, which means they often are not around to help with homework if they could, he said. Leaving children home alone sometimes lands families in trouble if they are accused of neglect, Bailey said.
“In fact, it’s not child neglect," he said. "It’s survival.”
As children become more adept at English, parents who don't speak English find themselves even more isolated.
That language barrier was the most common complaint Esther Idassi heard while working as an interpreter at Guilford County Mental Health.
Idassi, who is from Tanzania and speaks Swahili, said parents often would tell her, “I need help with my kids. I’m losing my children. I don’t know how to speak to anybody about it.”
Parents told her they didn’t know what their children were doing in school and couldn’t understand their homework. Some parents never had been to school, she said. Some couldn’t read or write. They had to trust what their children told them about school.
Students have signed their report cards without their parents ever seeing them, Idassi said. They’ve signed their reading logs for class. Some students tell their parents they have homework on the computer when they don't, she said.
Idassi started an after-school tutoring program called Elimu Empowerment Services in response to that need.
“Mama Esther,” as the children call her, also serves as a liaison for the families. She sits down with parents and teachers so the team can stay abreast of a student's progress.
Often, students also have to figure out for themselves important decisions about school, including the classes they take.
Some rely on their teachers to make that decision for them, Idassi said. That reveals some teachers’ perceptions of the students and a reluctance to put them in more advanced classes that would prepare them for college, she said.
Counselors should identify students in that type of situation and guide them, she said.
As students learn English and lose their native language, they might shift roles with their parents.
“They’re the interpreters. They’re speakers for their parents,” Idassi said.
When there are problems at home, such as a lack of food, the children have to call for help, she said. That responsibility, she said, is too much for a child.
Wanting to belong
On top of everything else — translating for their parents, learning a new language, acclimating to a new culture — many students say they also have to deal with bullies.
“If you are from a different country, most people ... born here would look at you so different,” said Munnah Nimely, who is from Liberia. “And they would look at you like, oh, she doesn’t dress like us, she doesn’t talk like us, and stuff like that.”
Other students tend to stick with their own group of friends, she said.
It’s a situation that she said would sometimes make her sit in class and wonder, “Why am I even here?”
Nimely speaks English but with an African dialect. She said she was teased in both elementary and middle school.
She said she pushed herself, working on weekends and reading with her father to better grasp the language.
The bullying continued. At one point, it was so bad her mother called the police on a group of girls at her school. Nimely said she was angry when she got home and found out. She didn’t want to go to school anymore.
“It was so hard. You have this pressure on your back like they don’t want you near them like you have this disease or something,” she said, her voice shaking. “It’s just really hard you know?”
When Achut Thapa emigrated from Nepal, all he could say in English was “Hello” and “How are you?”
He didn’t have the words then to complain to teachers about students bullying him. Instead, he said, he would get into fights with other students and got suspended “all the time.”
Thapa, now a Guilford College student, said joining the soccer and track teams in high school helped. As he got to know more people he grew more confident and popular. His teammates stood up for him.
American students typically hear a single, often stereotypical narrative about other countries, said José Oliva, an immigrant from Guatemala who graduated in 2013 from the Greensboro College Middle College. Little is done in the school system to change that narrative, he said.
“We also have an assumption of America,” Oliva said. “We have an assumption that America is a country where you can come and be able to rise up, a country where you have freedom.
"In reality, yes, a lot of our countries have dangerous situations happening, whether it's gangs ... or civil wars."
With those issues, America is a better option, he said. "And we want to be here, we want to contribute to the community.”
Yet when immigrants and refugees express that desire to contribute, Oliva said, they’re often told, “No, you cannot help out. No, we don’t want you here.”
He said he sees that rejection reflected in the stories about students being bullied.
School officials like to celebrate the system’s diversity and the number of languages spoken, but there is no mention of other issues such as bullying, Oliva said. No one seems to look beyond the numbers to ask important questions about immigrant and refugee students — how to meet their needs and foster their talents.
School officials are trying, he said.
“But trying is not enough when it is a really big issue.”
Contact Marquita Brown at (336) 373-7002, and follow @mbrownNR on Twitter.