ERIC Identifier: ED357905
Publication Date: 1993-03-00
Author: Romo, Harriet
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Mexican Immigrants in High Schools: Meeting Their Needs. ERIC
THIS DIGEST CONSIDERS the needs of Mexican immigrant students of high school
age, needs that often escape the attention of educators. Whether their status is
undocumented or documented, however, U.S. law provides for these students to be
educated at public expense.
The discussion briefly reviews some of the salient characteristics of this
population, including its historical roots and educational needs. It then
examines features of schooling thought to be productive for Mexican immigrant
students, including frequently used program models. It also summarizes the
characteristics associated with effective programs that respond to the needs of
adolescent immigrants. The Digest concludes with a discussion of the transition
from high school to work, an issue of major importance to this population
throughout the high school years.
HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL CIRCUMSTANCES
circumstances of immigration from Mexico have changed over time, movement back
and forth across the joint border with Mexico has a long history. During the
nineteenth century, and into the early decades of this century, authorities took
surprisingly little notice of this movement. Mexicans became an integral part of
the population of the U.S. Southwest before official policies, in fact, gave
them the label "immigrant." More recently, increasing numbers of students--with
or without their families--have entered the United States in search of the
advantages associated with life and work in this country.
In the Southwest and Midwest, Mexican laborers have traditionally supplied
the bulk of unskilled labor. Exploitation and discrimination have been common
(Acuna, 1981). Mexican immigrants are more likely to live in urban areas than in
rural areas, the average size of their households is larger than that of
non-Hispanic households, and their families are younger than the non-Hispanic
population (Garcia & Montgomery, 1991). Naturalization rates for this group
are low, but its youth and its geographic concentration mean that Mexican
immigrant students are certain to attend American schools in significant numbers
for the foreseeable future.
High dropout rates, students overage for their grade levels, low scores on
achievement tests, poor attendance records, and low rates of participation in
postsecondary education are common among these students. Cultural and language
differences, mobility, and priority given to work over education make it
difficult for U.S. schools to meet the needs of many Mexican immigrant students.
EDUCATIONAL NEEDS OF IMMIGRANT STUDENTS
students--especially those who arrive as adolescents and those whose families
migrate as seasonal agricultural workers--have special needs as they adjust to
their lives in the United States. Their educational backgrounds vary
considerably. Some adolescents will have attended Secundaria in Mexico
(approximately 7th-9th grade in the U.S.), a comparatively strong educational
background. Many others, however, will have attended only a few years of
Primaria (grades 1-6); still others may have never enrolled in school in Mexico.
Such adolescents will have few literacy skills. Varying educational backgrounds
is one source that structures the needs of this population.
The need to learn English, however, characterizes most new Mexican
immigrants; it is an accommodation most seek willingly. Not only is learning
English an economic asset, but research has consistently demonstrated that being
bilingual is an intellectual asset (Hakuta 1986).
Whatever students' intents, and whatever the intellectual advantages of
bilingualism, Mexican immigrant students are often viewed as lacking
intellectual ability instead of lacking English proficiency. Complicating the
issue, immigrants from rural areas in Mexico may have had numerous absences and
transfers because of their families' migration patterns. High mobility in the
U.S. compounds this original difficulty.
These influences--lack of literacy skills in
Spanish, limited English language abilities, and high rates of mobility--present
difficult instructional problems for schools. Secondary schools have responded
primarily by establishing three sorts of programs:
intensive English for Speakers of Other Language (ESOL) classes,
bilingual programs that teach subject courses in the students' native language
as they learn English, and
newcomers' schools, which try to address the cultural and academic adjustments
of immigrant students.
Quality of instruction is hampered in each of these programs by the students'
varying levels of academic skills and English proficiency and a curriculum that
usually does not parallel that provided to English-speaking students. Each
program approach, however, has strengths and weaknesses, as considered next.
classes are typically found in schools that enroll students whose native
languages vary widely. ESOL tends to focus on goals that are immediately useful
to, and appreciated by, students; this feature constitutes both a strength and a
shortcoming. First, immigrant students and their parents have the strong desire
to learn English for its economic utility--opening up more and better job
opportunities in the United States (Romo, 1985). Immigrants are, therefore,
eager to participate in ESOL classes. Second, the disadvantage of ESOL programs
is that they tend to emphasize oral language and do not cultivate students'
reading and writing skills, more specific academic needs (i.e., specialized high
school courses), or critical thinking.
programs teach academic concepts in a student's strongest language, while
simultaneously teaching English language skills. The catch for adolescent
immigrants is that bilingual programming is more comprehensive in elementary
schools (San Miguel, 1987). As a result, most secondary bilingual programs are
limited to the core subjects of reading, writing, and basic math. The shortage
of certified bilingual faculty to teach specialized subjects at the high school
level means that, no matter how great the need, providing expansive course
offering in the bilingual track is very difficult.
programs provide a series of transition courses, allowing recent immigrants to
learn about American culture and to receive counseling on adjustment problems.
They teach English language skills that will help students make the transition
into the regular school program. The programs facilitate adjustment, but being
grouped with other newcomers cannot by itself give immigrant students access to
mainstream activities and social groups.
A common feature of each of these programs is that they tend to segregate
immigrant students from their English-speaking peers and track them away from
academic or college-prep courses. This tendency is particularly objectionable in
the case of gifted immigrant high school students. Such students, most
particularly among all students, need a broad-based program of intellectual
challenge and cultural enrichment. Special attention should be provided in areas
that will help these students graduate from high school, attain high scores in
examinations, enroll in four-year colleges and universities, and attain advanced
These goals, of course, are also important for many other immigrant high
school students. Programs such as the International High School, a collaborative
curriculum project developed by New York colleges and public schools, and
special summer programs such as Upward Bound, that bring immigrant high school
students to college campuses for tutoring and college orientation, help bridge
the gap between high school graduation requirements and college entry
CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD PRACTICE
The work of researchers
Carter and Chatfield (1986); Lucas, Henze, and Donato (1990); and Olsen and
Dowell (1989) reports the positive characteristics of schools that effectively
meet the needs of Mexican immigrant students. Such characteristics include many
that describe good schools in general (e.g., high expectations for academic
achievement for all students, high levels of parental involvement, and strong
instructional and organizational leadership). Other characteristics effective
with this population include: (1) valuing of students' home languages and
cultures, (2) school leadership that makes immigrant students a priority, (3)
outreach and communication in the parents' home language, (4) staff development
to help teachers and other staff serve immigrant students more effectively, (5)
scheduling that includes immigrant students in classes with English-speaking
students, (6) placement decisions made with adequate assessment and
consultation, and (7) programs that address multicultural concerns (both social
TRANSITION FROM SCHOOL TO WORK
Although most jobs that
offer the prospect of upward mobility require graduation from high school, the "transition" from school to work precedes high school graduation for many
Mexican immigrant students. This pattern is unfortunate.
Flexible instructional programming and support services are needed to help
immigrant students throughout every transition from school to work. Provisions
that have helped keep immigrant students in school include coordinated social
services, counseling, tutoring, enrichment activities, health service referrals,
and job training and placement. Initiatives that lead to associate degrees (or
other certification from community or technical colleges) are important options
for many immigrant students.
Imel (1989) notes that many issues--such as knowledge of career options,
access to programs, program quality, support services, interagency coordination,
and family influence--must be considered as educators help immigrant students
plan vocational training. Effective high school programs and multiple or
"second-chance" opportunities for education and training--such as self-paced
curriculum, workplace English and literacy instruction, and evening school
classes--help ensure that Mexican immigrant students get the chance to learn
skills needed for decent employment (Neubert and Leak, 1990).
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Chicanos (2nd ed.). NY: Harper & Row.
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Garcia, J., & Montgomery, P. (1991). Hispanic population in the United
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ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. (ED 312 412).
Lucas, T., Henze, R., & Donato, R. (1990). Promoting the success of
Latino language-minority students: An exploratory study of six high schools.
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Romo, H. (1985). The Mexican origin population's differing perceptions of
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