Educating Minnesota’s immigrant students

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“Immigrant students have been at the center of a political firestorm,” says the Citizens League report Educating Minnesota’s Immigrant Students. At a panel presentation of the report on February 27, study committee member Matt Musel said that they found “little data, but lots of politics and passion” surrounding the issue of immigrant students. The Citizens League is a non-partisan, citizen-based and multi-issue organization working to shape public policy in Minnesota since the 1950s.

In this report, the Citizen’s League strongly supports education and higher education for Minnesota’s young immigrants, regardless of their immigration status. Unsurprisingly, a strong dissent argues against education for undocumented immigrant youth.

Minnesota’s immigrant youth include both documented and undocumented students. A heated debate over whether and how to educate undocumented youth has raged for years, often focusing on proposals for state and federal DREAM act legislation, which would allow undocumented youth to pay resident tuition while attending college (state legislation) or to become permanent residents and citizens (federal legislation.)

Advocates for immigrant youth point out that undocumented youth usually are brought to the United States by parents, and that many have lived in the U.S. for the greater part of their lives.

Opponents point out that the children and teens still lack proper documents, The fact that they have been raised as Minnesotans, or are honor students or athletes, or speak only English and have no memory of the land of their birth are irrelevant.

The Citizens League report addresses the education of all immigrant youth. Young immigrants are crucial to Minnesota, said Kyle Uphoff, from the MN Department of Education and Economic Development. He pointed to Minnesota’s aging population, with large increases coming in the 55-and-older contingent from now through 2020. Minnesota demographic figures show that migration will become the largest source of new workers in Minnesota. In order to grow Minnesota’s economy, the state needs to better educate immigrant youth and the children of immigrants.

Many new immigrants come to Minnesota with high school, college, and advanced degrees. Some 40% of Minnesotans working in medical science positions and 30% of software engineers, for example, are immigrants. On the other end of the income scale, immigrants make up even larger numbers of lower-income occupations, such as taxi drivers, food service workers, nursing assistants and home health aides.

Juventino Meza, a sophomore at Augsburg College, described his own experience as a teenage immigrant going to school at Arlington High School in St. Paul. He observed that his high school was about 92 percent students of color, including immigrants, but that a great majority of teachers, administrators and teachers were white. “That sends a message,” Meza said, “that ‘I can’t be a teacher, I can’t be a principal.'” He seconded the report’s strong recommendation to increase opportunities for immigrants to become teachers, counselors and administrators, especially through nontraditional avenues.

Meza praised the Admission Possible program, which uses AmeriCorps workers to provide coaching for high school students to encourage and help them to get to college. As part of the community service component of Admission Possible, Meza became involved with the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, working for legislative changes that would create a flat-rate tuition in Minnesota public institutions and for the DREAM Act to allow undocumented high school students access to higher education.

James Worlobah, the co-chair of the study committee and a Liberian immigrant, pointed out cultural barriers for immigrant students and families. Children who have grown up in refugee camps start school behind their age cohort. Parents often work long hours, taking care of families here and also supporting family members who are still in refugee camps or in the home country. Adding to these obstacles, many cultures teach that education is the business of teachers and schools, not the province of parents. The study recommended greater cultural training for educators in order to at least realize the existence of these cultural barriers, and to begin to address them.

Among the specific recommendations of the Citizen’s League report,:

• develop a statewide online “higher education platform” that all students are required to complete before graduating from high school;

• increase and improve mentoring and advising for immigrant students by tapping into nontraditional but trusted community resources;

• create new mechanisms to prepare teachers, advisors and school administrators to effectively educate immigrant students;

• increase opportunities for immigrants to become teachers, counselors and school administrators, especially through nontraditional avenues;

• equalize eligibility of part-time and older students for scholarships and grants;

• pass state legislation to allow all students who meet residency requirements to attend public colleges and universities at the in-state tuition rate, regardless of immigration status;

• make state higher education aid available to all students who meet residency requirements, regardless of immigration status;

• develop a standardized financial aid application that can be used to obtain state financial aid and institution-specific scholarships, as an alternative to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA);

• provide additional support to students identified as English Language Learners, in the form of longer school days, a longer school year or programs outside of school;

• improve Minnesota’s English Language Learner systems by standardizing identification of ELL students, setting aggressive goals for student progress, and promoting the use of best practices by all Minnesota schools.

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