Language exposure seen as key for immigrants
Dictionaries, translators, and maps weren't enough for Kathy Brenny when she visited the state of Michoacan, Mexico. "There was no English!" she exclaimed. "We got excited when we saw a Pepsi truck - we could read the word!"
Kathy continued on to explain how her visit to Mexico compared to Spanish-speaking students coming to Iowa. "No one here speaks their language, knows their culture, knows their traditions and values," she says with a tinge of sadness in her voice.
Brenny, an administrator at the Storm Lake Area Education Agency, was one of 23 Iowans who recently took a trip to Michoacan, Mexico, an area many of Iowa's immigrants call home. The group spent ten days in Mexico, as part of a project aimed at improving teaching methods with students who are learning English. The federally funded project was a language immersion experience for school administrators, according to Brenny. The trip was part of a three year grant to find the best practices and resources to help children and families adjust to life in the United States.
To qualify for the trip, the school administrators had to be from districts that experienced a 5 percent increase in English-as-a-Second-Language families in the last two years. Storm Lake has seen an 11 percent leap in such families.
While in Mexico, the group attended classes and stayed at the Crefal Institute, in Patzcuaro. The mornings were filled with classes, and the afternoons spent in villages throughout Mexico, studying culture and traditions.
At night, the group met to debrief and discuss how what they learned could be adapted and used in Iowa schools.
One thing that the group learned was that familiarity is a big plus. "We were so glad to see something American, like a McDonald's," said Brenny. "One administrator wrote out a welcome address to read to Spanish-speaking students. Familiarity makes them feel welcome."
The group also met with the Mexican Department of Education. Brenny said that the two groups found a lot of similarities with each other regarding education. "They were especially concerned about families breaking up and the 'brain drain' that Mexico is suffering - their best and brightest students are moving to the States," said Brenny.
The two groups also looked at ways to maintain a connection between the countries to keep track of school records for immigrant children. Brenny stated that many of the immigrants want to move back eventually, and many times, school records don't transfer, creating problems with the students' education. The Mexican educators also stressed the importance of bilingual education to them. "That came out loud and clear - they want their students to learn English, but maintain their Spanish," said Brenny.
Maintaining the Mexican culture is a huge part of Latino's lives. "They have so much history, they want to celebrate it and build on it," said Brenny. Family is also extremely important to the culture. Brenny mentioned how their entertainment was always family and culturally oriented. The Iowans were treated to many nights of singing, dancing, and instrumental music, all performed by groups of families. "It was families, always families," said Brenny.
One visit to a Mexican village particularly stuck out in her mind. The group visited a family that made copper trinkets in their home. "I couldn't believe how highly skilled they were. It was impeccable work and it's a shame we're not tapping those skills (in the States)," said Brenny. She mentioned that making copper was also a family activity. "The boys learn how to make things at age 14, and they have a rhythm when they pound the copper. One will pound and then the other," she said. "All of this was going on in a family's house, and on the other side of the room, all the women of the family were gathered butchering chickens."
Latinos' faith and religion is equally important to them, as a visit to the Guadalupe Church proved to the visitors. "There were people crawling on their knees and standing in lines just to get into the church," said Brenny. "And everyone brought flowers."
The landscape also made an impression on Brenny. "They have everything - mountains and lakes," she said. "There were flowers everywhere."
But even with all the beautiful scenery and rich history and traditions, the poverty of the country was difficult to escape. Brenny told stories of having to pay one peso for toilet paper and to use the restroom, as well as people asking for pesos and selling fried minnows for money.
The food was also a culture shock for Brenny. "It wasn't the same as Mexican food here. Even the McDonald's was different - they catered to the native people. Luckily, we were served cereal and yogurt at every meal."
In spite of the differences and barriers between the two cultures, Brenny was glad for the opportunity to broaden her horizons. "The most important thing we learned was the importance of language," she said. "We want schools to look into different opportunities to expose their students to as much language development as possible. We need to do a lot more than what we're doing."
With a better grasp of what Storm Lake's immigrant children are faced with, teachers and administrators can begin to close the achievement gap that has been so evident in past years. The achievement gap is measured by students' scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. The data is taken from reading, math, and science scores of students in the fourth, eighth, and eleventh grades.
According to the Storm Lake Schools Annual Progress Report for 2003-2004, "The district experiences disparities in achievement when data are broken out by subgroup. There are differences in achievement among ethnic groups of students and among those who have been in the district for various lengths of time." Storm Lake schools have traditionally seen a much lower proficiency level in minority students than non-minority students.
Last year, Storm Lake Community Schools reported 801 minority students in grades K-12, which was almost 40% of the students. Not all of the minority students were Latino, however.
According to the Des Moines Register, last year 23,661 of Iowa's 481,226 public school students were Latino, which is now the largest minority group in Iowa schools. This number has tripled in the last decade.