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Immigrant Youth Speak Out For Equal Education

by Jenna Vendil 2009-10-20 10:45

Over a year and half ago, young activists and former students in the Portland public schools approached me about the challenges facing immigrant and refugee students and students of color in our public schools.  I met with former students who had gone through the English Language Learners (ELL) track in high school who felt under-supported in their aspirations for college and families who weren’t receiving the proper notification that their kids weren’t receiving credit for the classes they were taking.  I met with advocates who spent the last ten years trying to access data of dropout and completion rates based on race or ethnicity, gender, class year, and free or reduced lunch eligibility from the school department and State Department of Education, but told no such data exists.

As The League became more involved on the issue of educational equity, it became increasingly clear that young voices, especially immigrant experiences, had been left out of the debate around education in our schools.  Many of the students I’ve worked with have the aspirations but lack the opportunities, resources, and support to be truly successful in school and in the community.  These are the stories that need to be heard firsthand by our elected school officials and education leaders—a purpose shared by other advocates like the NAACP and Maine Civil Liberties Union who worked to organize the diversity panel last Wednesday at the Portland School Committee’s workshop.

The panel consisted of current and former students of Portland Public Schools - Jean Paul Kamanzi, Joseph Perez, Kelsey Phillips, and Alfred Jacobs – who spoke about their experiences in our Portland schools to illustrate the challenge and opportunities for educational equity. All students agreed that high school was an exciting time for them.  Portland High School grad and Sudanese immigrant, Alfred described his experiences as a former ELL student who enrolled in college after high school, only to drop out of college because he felt ill-equipped and prepared despite having a high school diploma.  For Jean Paul who also attends PHS, his frustration is that he’s not able to take more challenging classes in math and science because he is an ELL student.  Joseph who was a successful member of the wrestling team when he attended Portland High but eventually dropped out, talked about how the only time he got to see the principal was when he got into trouble.

Our public schools are our most vital areas of investment—it has potential to be the greatest equalizer for our most vulnerable families.  It's possible for Portland to become a model district in which all students are prepared to learn actively, think critically, and pursue even greater successes after graduation.  We have the opportunity to provide the training, support, and tools needed for all our youth to be successful, productive members of our community.  It’s not okay that our public schools fail to meet the needs of our young people.

With a new superintendent and a fresh School Committee, there’s hope for education advocates to participate in meaningful dialogue to reduce race and class inequalities in our educational system.  Teachers and former community advocates have made equity and diversity a critical part of their work in education, but this work needs the increased support of the superintendent, school committee, and the principals.  We look forward to taking the next steps needed to ensure all our students are learning for their future. 

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