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Reflections on Locked Out of Learning: Educating Refugees in America’s Schools

Locked Out

I knew attending the Locked Out of Learning: Educating Refugees in America’s Schools forum would ignite in me a deep reflection of my life—a life shaped both by and in the shadow of my family’s immigration to the United States. Born to “Vietnamese boat people,” members of a two-million-people diaspora fleeing communist Vietnam from 1975 to 1995, I immediately saw the similarities between my own refugee parents, the six named plaintiffs in Issa v. School District of Lancaster, and the Asian American students involved in the 2009 interracial-violence incident at South Philadelphia High School. They were all new Americans who left their native countries in pursuit of greater educational and economic opportunities in the United States. However, upon arrival they were faced with the often harsh reality of cross-cultural assimilation, a slow and difficult process of adjustment.

Escaping persecution, violence, and war, my mother and father settled in the United States for a better future. Yet, despite their steadfast work ethic, our household was in a perpetual state of financial instability. Growing up in this manner, I came to the realization that the key to achieving the ‘American Dream’ was education.

The Forum, presented by the Student Public Interest Network (SPIN), the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), and the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), was held on Wednesday, October 12, 2016. It was moderated by Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales, I. Herman Stern Professor of Law, Co-Director of the Institute for International Law & Public Policy, and included panelists Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania; Professor Len Rieser of the Education Law Center, Program Director for the Sheller Center for Social Justice; Wei Chen, Civics Engagement Coordinator for Asian Americans United; and Ludy Soderman, Director of the Multilingual Family Support Office for the School District of Philadelphia. The one-hour engagement centered on two case studies surrounding immigrant students seeking education in Pennsylvania school districts, followed by a question and answer session.

The first speaker was Molly Tack-Hooper, who detailed the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Education Law Center, and Pepper Hamilton LLP’s federal lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster (SDOL). Filed on July 19, 2016, the ongoing claim, Issa v. School District of Lancaster, alleges that the SDOL illegally refused—and continues to refuse—enrollment to limited-English-proficient (LEP) immigrant students at its local public high school, J. P. McCaskey High School. The SDOL has outright rejected these students’ admission or, upon insistence from parents and advocates, has assigned them to Phoenix Academy, an intensive remedial school run by a private company called Camelot Education. At Phoenix Academy, students are subjected to a highly oppressive and troubling learning environment complete with pat-down searches, little to no homework, prohibition from bringing belongings into or out of the school, enforcement of color-coordinated shirts that correspond to their behavior, and the looming possibility of being physically or even violently restrained due to the school’s militaristic disciplinary policy. On August, 26, 2016, the SDOL was court-ordered to immediately allow refugee students to enroll at J.P. McCaskey High School. The case has since been appealed by the SDOL to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

I consider education a right, not a privilege. LEP immigrant students deserve the same opportunities granted to myself and every other American-born citizen.

Originating from Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma, the plaintiffs’ plight mirrored that of my parents’. Escaping persecution, violence, and war, my mother and father settled in the United States for a better future. Yet, despite their steadfast work ethic, our household was in a perpetual state of financial instability. Growing up in this manner, I came to the realization that the key to achieving the ‘American Dream’ was education. Thus, I deeply empathize with the LEP immigrant students affected by the SDOL’s barring of enrollment or reassignment. The SDOL’s solution to educating new immigrants with little English knowledge is quintessentially a quick-fix. It intends to graduate LEP immigrant students as expeditiously as possible in order to alleviate its responsibility to them—an obvious violation in direct contrast to our country’s founding principles. I consider education a right, not a privilege. LEP immigrant students deserve the same opportunities granted to myself and every other American-born citizen.

The second case study was a first-hand account of the December 3, 2009 South Philadelphia High School racial violence incident presented by Wei Chen. That day, a group of students roamed the hallways targeting students of Asian descent, many of whom were immigrants, to commit acts of racially-charged violence. By the time school concluded, more than thirty Asian American students had been physically attacked and sent to the hospital for treatment. Chen recounted seeing students sitting lined up against the wall, each battered and bruised. One was wearing a blood-stained white shirt due to a broken nose. Another student held his head between his palms in pain. Chen, a senior at the time and the victim of a similar assault as a freshman, founded the Chinese Student Association. With the goal of ensuring a safe education environment, as well as improving race relations between African American and Asian American students, the Chinese Student Association, which included Chen and fifty students, staged an eight-day boycott of the school, gaining nationwide attention. Shortly after, the Justice Department launched an investigation which concluded with its instruction to the School District of Philadelphia to improve its treatment of Asian American students, resulting in stronger anti-bullying policies in schools throughout the city.

Immigrant students are sometimes confronted with a myriad of problems as they try to assimilate into American society—reconciling cultural differences, adjusting to a new language, and learning to socialize with new peers.

Chen’s story is powerful because it is one that most of us can relate to; being bullied. I was raised in Philadelphia and have attended public schools for the entirety of my education. I am familiar with the racial tensions that exist within Philadelphia, “the City of Neighborhoods.” As the City continues to diversify, immigrant students and those deemed as “other” are at risk of marginalization for their differences. Through my nonprofit work with youths, I often see children having trouble relating to one another when they are exposed unfamiliar ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations. Compounded with this issue of alienation, immigrant students are sometimes confronted with a myriad of problems as they try to assimilate into American society—reconciling cultural differences, adjusting to a new language, and learning to socialize with new peers.

So, “What do we owe new Americans?” as Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales so poignantly asked. What are the tools that we can deploy to assist immigrant students in the Pennsylvania education system? I believe the answer lies in another question posited by Ludy Soderman, “What can we learn from our students?” As Professor Len Rieser stated, “Schools have to broker relationships. When they do, a lot of solutions come from immigrants and refugees themselves. They come from teachers, who have much more to offer than is permitted by the terms under which they work.” The panelists agree; schools must integrate themselves within their changing communities and build open relationships with their students and parents in order to understand their evolving needs and concerns. As children of immigrants, I believe my first generation American peers and I occupy a space in-between, and that we can act as a bridge to help facilitate these relationships, enforce civil rights, and spread awareness to immigrant and refugee interests in the courageous spirits of Chen and the six plaintiffs in Issa v. School District of Lancaster.

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