Monday, May 13, 2013

Large-Scale Study of Immigrant Children

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, allegedly committed by two young immigrants, two researchers wrote an op ed piece about the challenges immigrant children face: Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco & Carola Suárez-Orozco, Immigrant Kids, Adrift, N.Y. Times, April 22, 2013.
Whatever motivated the Tsarnaev brothers surely is not the fault of the schools and may never be known. Among some of the distinctive features of their case are family estrangement, multiple relocations across countries and, possibly, religious radicalization. But the broad lesson—assimilating immigrant students into the fabric of society through academic, psychological and other supports—should inform educators and policy makers in the decades ahead, when immigrants and their children will account for most of the nation’s population growth.
book jacket Learning a New Land
The op ed's byline cited their book: Carola Suárez-Orozco, Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco & Irina Todorova, Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society (Harvard U. Press, 2008, paperback 2010). The Kindle edition is just $9.99 so I started right in, and I've been fascinated. Here's the publisher's page for more information. And here's the Amazon page, in case you're also an Amazon shopper. (Seattle Public Library has two copies, but they're both checked out.)

The Suárez-Orozcos are co-directors of the Institute for Immigrant, Children, Youth , and Families at UCLA. In the book's introduction, the authors characterize Carola as "a cultural psychologist with strong developmental interests," Marcelo as "a psychological anthropologist with a long history of involvement in the field of immigration and refugee studies, and Irina as "a cultural health psychologist." So you can imagine that their research is interdisciplinary.

The book presents the results of a five-year study of about 400 recently arrived immigrant children. They only included children who had spent at least two-thirds of their lives in their original country, not the ones who immigrated as babies.

The children were in seven school districts in the Boston area and the San Francisco Bay area. There were about 80 children from each of the following countries or regions:
  • Haiti
  • Dominican Republic
  • China
  • Mexico
  • Central American countries (e.g., El Salvador, Guatemala)
Bilingual research assistants from the relevant communities interviewed the children and families, made observations in the schools, talked to teachers, and so on.  They also looked at the children's environments: the quality of the schools, the poverty rate, street crime, and so on. It's really an impressive project. A fuller description is here: Longitudinal Immigrant Student Adaptation Study.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who works with immigrant students (and, for that matter, for people who care about the quality of American society).

If you don't have a taste for social science research, the first chapters, where the authors describe their methodology and report statistical results, might seem dry (even though they do illustrate the statistical generalizations with examples of individual children). You might like to jump to chapters 5-8, which tell the stories of 21 students. They are grouped according to their academic trajectories.
Of course, each immigrant life is unique and irreducible. Nonetheless, each portrait demonstrates the many ways that immigrant youth are propelled to become high achievers or conversely to become disengaged low achievers.
I found the first chapter of these portraits very disheartening, because these were the children who disengaged from school, failed, or dropped out. I looked at the table of contents and was relieved to see that the chapters ahead would have more hopeful stories. The chapters are:
5. Portraits of Declining Achievers
6. Portraits of Low Achievers
7. Portraits of Improvers
8. Portraits of High Achievers
There are many factors that make the difference between the sad stories and the hopeful ones. Maybe the factors won't surprise anyone: the high achievers "tended to be enrolled in supportive schools, to have caring teachers, and to develop informal mentorships with coaches, counselors or ministers." (quotation from the op ed piece)

This reinforces my commitment to the Youth Tutoring Program. Whatever else is going on for these students, we know each child has the attention and concern of the center supervisor and two tutors.

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