Welcome to the New Hampshire melting pot

How school districts are integrating new American students into the classroom and encouraging tolerance



Hau stepped out of the airport and it was cold. And not just regular cold, it was different – foreign and strange on his body.

“The cold weather is like something that shoot right into the skin,” Hau, who is from Vietnam, wrote in an essay for an assignment at Henry J McLaughlin Middle School in Manchester. “When I first step out of airport it was freezing. I [don’t] think you could imagine how cold is the weather that I am living in right now. It kind of hard at first but I am trying to do things better and I did so.

“…When I first came to America I was very scared and nervous. At that time it felt like everything that they do was different than what I did in my country. But then I thought ‘no it is just like the same way as it was in my country.’

The idea of home can be a tricky one for new Americans.

“Home is a place that you call family and is made of love and dreams. A family lives in a home,” he writes. “Yes a person can have more than one home. For example, like I am living. I have two homes, one is in Vietnam and the other is in America. But I alway[s] think differently about them. Vietnam is a place that I born and grew up as a child. When I was … 8 years old I moved to America just for an opportunity. Now life is kind of different. School changed things and the language with other people is kind of hard too.

Like many immigrants, Hau has a drive, a resolve, resilience, within him to keep going, to make it work, to make it better.

 “If you go to a new country and everything is different don’t [give up] just try it will get better in each day.”

New Hampshire is not known for its diversity. In fact, it is often cited as one of the most homogenous states in the union. But that is slowly changing.

According to the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit immigration advocacy group, immigrants –particularly Latinos and Asians – account for growing shares of the economy and population in New Hampshire.

At the same time, anti-immigrant sentiment is a widely discussed concern not only among immigrant populations, but among their allies.

While the grownups in the streets and seats of congress and halls of justice try to sort themselves, educators find themselves on the front lines teaching new American children how to navigate the halls of their new school homes and non-foreign born Americans how to share and be equitable.

Immigrants, refugees and the unauthorized

By definition, immigration is the movement of people into a country of which they are not native and not citizens.

As of 2013, there were 75,175 foreign-born immigrants and children of immigrants – including refugees – in the Granite State. Of that number, 10,000 – or about .9 percent – are unauthorized immigrants. And of that total, more than half, 53 percent, are naturalized citizens.

That number has been on the rise.

The foreign-born share of New Hampshire’s population rose from 3.7 percent in 1990, to 4.4 percent in 2000, to 5.7 percent in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As a group, immigrants contribute to the state’s economy as workers, and also account for billions of dollars in tax revenue and consumer purchasing power, according to the AIC.

Within immigration there are subcategories:

• Refugees:  people fleeing a dangerous homeland seeking asylum.

• Unauthorized immigrants (also known as undocumented immigrants): people living in the United States without proper documentation, which is against the law.

Immigration in New Hampshire schools is tracked by the number of English Learners attending New Hampshire schools, of which there are more than 4,900, according to the NH Department of Education.

 “While the majority of ELs have come to this state as immigrants with their families or as adoptees joining a new family,” according to the NH DOE, “many were born in the United States. Among the immigrants are numerous refugees who have been resettled in New Hampshire communities.”

To compile these numbers the state tracks two things: Limited English proficiency students eligible for services and LEP Monitored students, those who’ve transitioned to monitored status upon attainment of proficiency in English.

Looking at those numbers, the state as a whole has seen an uptick in the number of LEP enrolled and LEP monitored students between the 2014-15 and the 2016-17 school years. Out of 183,604 total students in 2014-15, there were 4,147 LEP Enrolled and 1,233 monitored. By 2016-17, total enrollment was down — 179,734 — but the number of LEP Enrolled and LEP monitored had gone up to 4,272 and 1,374, respectively.

The school districts seeing the most LEP students are not surprisingly those in some of the largest communities in the state, including Concord, Nashua and Manchester.

Refugees

Refugees are fleeing danger. “They take with them only what they can carry, only what they have time to pack. Sometimes all they have left are their dreams, their hopes and the will to survive,” according to the state’s web Refugee website.

Since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which established the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program as well as screening and admission standard, about 3 million refugees from all over the world have resettled in the United States, said Barbara Seebart, NH State Refugee Coordinator in the Office of Health Equity, Concord.

In 2016, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Burma, Iraq and Somalia accounted for the most of the refugees coming into the United States, according to Pew Research. Over the past decade, the largest numbers of refugees have come from Burma (159,692) and Iraq (135,643), Pew shows.

California, Texas and New York resettled nearly a quarter of all refugees in fiscal year 2016, together taking in 20,738 refugees, according to Pew. Other states that received at least 3,000 refugees included Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, Washington, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

New Hampshire last year took in 36 refugees, 20 so far in 2017, and 573 since 2008, according to the Refugee Processing Center. Since the early-1980s, about 7,500 refugees have become Granite Staters, according to the state, most of them settling in Manchester, Concord, Nashua, and Laconia, according to the state.

Congress sets the quota for the number of refugees that can be let into the country, Seebart said, and where they go in the state is typically determined by the resources (medical, employment, transportation and educational) available in an authorized resettlement area.

The admissions process for refugees is long. “It can take up to about two years. I think refugees are one of the heaviest vetted groups of people who enter the United States when you compare them to other groups like students or people here on a work visa.”

According to State Department, those going through the process have to apply, are screened by the U.S. State Department and other agencies, and interview in person with the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Further, the Resettlement Support Center requests a “sponsorship assurance” from a U.S.-based resettlement agency that is experienced in providing assistance to newly arrived refugees, according to the state department.

Once the refugees arrive in New Hampshire, Seebart said, they have all the rights and responsibilities of an American except for the right to vote.

“They have full status and to work and do everything Americans do and they are here under the protection of our government,” she  said. “And they are on the correct trajectory to get a green card within a year and become a citizen within five years if they choose to.”

Refugees in NH schools

Anna-Marie DiPasquale, an English Language Learner social worker at Concord High School, said refugees account for the biggest shift in diversity in their school.

“It’s a relatively new phenomenon to have this wonderful diversity in Concord,” she said of the school, where more than 30 countries including Rwanda, Burundi, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq are represented in the population.

“In 1995, the school district was fewer than 2 percent not white, then Concord became a refugee resettlement site and now … at the high school … about 16 percent of our student body is from around the world.”

Even though as DiPaquale said, Concord is a special place, it is a microcosm of the outside world, and as such is not immune from bigotry, even though she’s quick to point out, “it would be the exception not the rule if a kid is bullied about their culture.”

When it does happen, she said, the administration takes it very seriously.

“We have had incidences; it’s not perfect by any means,” she said, describing an incident a few years ago where a racial epithet was scrawled on the door of an immigrant family. In response, students organized a rally outside the family’s home and gave them flowers.

“They wanted them to know this was an anomaly and to make them feel welcome,” DiPasquale said. “There’s a large group like that that will outnumber the negative.”

Wendy Perron, director of English Learner Instruction for the Manchester School District, said she hears a range of experiences from students in Manchester and that there have been tensions this year.

“We have a group of Muslim students that we meet with at the high school and check in with regularly,” she explains, “And when we ask them, ‘would you be comfortable hosting a forum of your peers to discuss your challenges?’ They didn’t even want to host that discussion; they sort of want to fly under the radar.”

When she asks them how they are internalizing that, their resilience shines through.

“Do I think it affects them and it’s a goal we all have to work on? Yes. But when I spoke with this particular group they said, ‘look, we’ve been through so much, these words are really nothing. We’ve been through such violent situations, we know these tensions exist but we prefer to kind of [ignore them].’”

Unauthorized Immigrants

The perception that there is a deluge of unauthorized immigrants coming into the country is not backed up by the numbers. According to Pew Research Center, in 2015, the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States was lower than at the end of the Great Recession in 2009. These years also saw a shift in who was coming here and staying without proper documentation, with the number of Mexicans declining and people from other regions rising, Pew Research showed.

According to Pew estimates, the unauthorized immigrant population in 2016 in the US was 11.3 million, and represented 3.4 percent of the total U.S. population in 2015. The number of unauthorized immigrants peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million, when this group was 4 percent of the U.S. population, according to Pew.

The American Immigration Council puts the number of unauthorized immigrants in New Hampshire at about 10,000.

New Hampshire schools don’t track immigration status of students, Perron said. However, she said she believes a good portion of students in the district are likely sons and daughters of undocumented parents or are unauthorized themselves.

“I will say our refugee students are somewhat more supported because they have that resettlement agency – connecting them to social services and employment services,” Perron said. “I’m a little more worried about our immigrant students that are here and undocumented. They don’t really understand what their rights are and they don’t really know who they can trust or where they can get resources.”

She said the district tries to hold a lot of parent info sessions where they might just put out on the table information for undocumented families, where they can find it and discreetly pick it up. She said they also share that information with the guidance department.

“We definitely feel it in the schools,” she said. “We’ve had cases where a family member is deported, and that of course upsets the family and the student of course brings that into school with them.”

This kind of thing also causes attendance issues, she said. Students from undocumented families might disappear for a while only to come back and say they had been laying low for a few weeks in another state.

“Immigration sweeps happen in the city,” Perron said, “And [some students] definitely get nervous about that.”

Immigration and equity in the school

With these numbers and a growing immigrant population, it falls to some of the largest school districts to address issues of adjustment and equity.

DiPasquale said her goals for helping immigrant students at her school in Concord include integrating students into school by helping them access the curriculum and anything an American student would have access to, helping them create a plan for after high school and to work with the families and being that bridge between the families and the school system.

Ultimately, though, what DiPascuale wants is for the new American student to feel connected to the school and community.

“There’s been amazing research on this,” she said, “school connections – It seems obvious… but students who are connected to school, perform better academically. So if you feel like, ‘this is my school. I’m invested. I feel like I have a say in my academic future,’ you are going to perform academically.”

That connection could look like sports, clubs, or connections to teachers, among other things, she said. For example, the school started the Be the Change Club. DiPascuale said the idea behind the club lies in the theory of students as experts in their own experience.

DiPascuale said, “When students arrive, they are learning a new language, they are learning a new culture, everything is different, they don’t feel like they are expert at anything. But actually they are, they are expert in their own experience. They are experts in helping others create a welcoming environment. They are experts in their own culture.

“So we created this club to give students a voice to be able to learn from each other.”

DiPascuale said the club has about 150 members but has attracted anywhere from 60 to 300 students to the monthly cultural events and international movie nights the club hosts. The club is also responsible for a weekly feature on the daily televised announcements, called Culture Talk, where an international student is interviewed about their culture or a report is given on a fact or point of international interest.

New American students are also given the opportunity to visit social studies and geography classrooms to discuss and answer questions about their country of origin or culture as it comes up in those classes. They also are able to add to discussion of some of the multicultural books included in the English curriculum.

“It really benefits the whole school to use the expertise that we already have,” DiPascuale said. “We have students in the classroom that feel like they have a foot in both worlds. So any chance we get to have the students share their experience, they do that right in the classroom.”

But even the best programs and intentions can’t stave off every eventuality for tension and division.

“I think that we often boast that we are the most culturally and linguistically diverse school district in the state,” Perron said, “but you go into the cafeteria and you still see factions where students are kind of grouping themselves by culture or language.

 “We really want to be intentional … about that integration in a learning community.”

Perron said that’s why they feel a great responsibility as a leadership team to take this issue on this year by doing some equity literacy work with all of the Manchester schools.

Perron said that at the high school level, this includes revamping portions of the curriculum to give New American students a chance to write about their culture, language and experience in a way that allows them to share that with their American student counterparts. Additionally, the curriculum in English and Social Studies in particular will include more multicultural perspectives.

The idea, Perron said, is to integrate the idea of equity and understanding into all aspects of students’ learning experiences.

Likewise, the district, in conjunction with the Manchester Education Association, has developed equity literacy training for teachers.

Elements of equity literacy include figuring out how to create a safe and caring learning environment for all learners that, “values relationship in both word and deed.” To do that there needs to be a desire to understand what and develop equity literacy and to recognize the barriers that that students face in Manchester to access opportunities and learning. There also needs to be, according to the presentation, a willingness to “’lean into’ uncomfortable spaces within ourselves, colleagues, and community to develop equity literacy,” according to Perron.

 “We’re going to have training and be really talking about equity and talking with each teacher, each educator in the district to do an equity audit,” Perron said. “Because it’s not going to be any one group of students, or one assignment – really what we need to do is integrate our efforts throughout every aspect of our system from assignments to policy to really invoke that change.” 

Melanie Plenda is an award-winning freelance writer based in Keene.

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