Somali Immigrants Struggle for Schooling
ED GORDON, host:
I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS AND NOTES. The battle over immigration captured headlines this week when thousands of demonstrators took the streets. They were protesting proposed legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants. While many focus on undocumented workers from Latin America, a little known fight over immigrant African children is brewing in Massachusetts.
Karen Brown of member station WFCR in Amherst has the story.
KAREN BROWN (Reporter, WFCR): When Jean Caldwell(ph) retired a few years ago, she offered free tutoring to the Springfield schools, and asked for the hardest cases. But when she got her first Somali child, she was amazed.
Ms. JEAN CALDWELL (Tutor, Amherst): After five minutes, he was up and over to the water fountain and I realized the running water was a miracle. All his life, his mother had carried any water the family was going to use in a jar on her head.
BROWN: A year later, that child, Abdullah Ali Isac(ph), is a shy second grader who's now used to running water and is finally learning to read, but well below grade level.
ABDULLAH ALI ISAC (Somali child): (Reading) Look at me I...
Ms. CALDWELL: It's got an R: resting.
Mr. ISAC: Resting.
Ms. CALDWELL: Resting, taking a nap.
Mr. BROWN: Isac is one of 300 Somalis from the largely uneducated Bontu tribe, who left refugee camps in Kenya three years ago to resettle in Springfield. In addition to severe culture shock, the Bontus could speak no English, and even the adults didn't read or write in their native language. That posed a significant challenge for the cash strapped school district, which had to absorb 90 Somali children.
Dr. Nnanyelu Ezeh is assistant principal at Rebecca Johnson Elementary School.
Dr. NNANYELU EZEH (Assistant Principal, Rebecca Johnson Elementary School): Given everything we have, I think we're doing the best we can for them. Getting them to perform at the level where people are [unintelligible] will take a little time, a little longer.
BROWN: But Jean Caldwell thought it needed to go faster. Last August, she filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. She claimed the Somali children were spread around too many different schools and were not served by the English as a Second Language curriculum.
Ms. JEAN CALDWELL: All the other kids speak Spanish and maybe the teacher speaks Spanish as a first language. So the kids are coming home and they're saying siente se to a visiting, means sit down in Spanish, as often as they're saying sit down. They're not distinguishing between the two languages.
BROWN: Caldwell enlisted the support of local Somali elders such as Bedal(ph) Hussein Ahmad. He said was shocked when he visited Somali children in the schools.
Mr. BEDAL HUSSEIN AHMAD (Somali Elder): They were sitting like a stump. They will sit in the class, but they do not understand anything. Two years the boy he will stay in the school, and he don't know how to read the alphabet.
BROWN: The U.S. Department of Education found that teachers were never trained to teach Somali speaking children and couldn't tell what they understood. Some students were even put in French or Italian classes before they knew any English. Only one part-time Somali translator was available for 21 schools, and he often spent his time explaining forms to the Bontu parents. But school officials say they had already begun to address Somali needs before the federal investigation.
Sylvia Galvan runs Springfield's English Language Learners Program.
Ms. SYLVIA GALVAN (English Language Learners Program): The program that we have with the Somalian population is that we cannot find in the area enough literate people that can come and help us.
BROWN: One recent afternoon, a teacher's aid was sitting with a Somali kindergartener in the principal's office. When a Somali man from the community happened to enter the building, she jumped up with relief. Finally, someone could help her discipline the boy.
Unidentified Woman: He has been yelling out in class just making crazy sounds, pulling his clothes off, just not listening.
Unidentified Man: Now, I told you he would provoke you to do this today. You said one of the children talked to him inappropriately.
Unidentified Woman: So if someone is bothering you, then you need to tell. You need to raise your hand. You raise your hand and you say: who was it? Who did it?
BROWN: The problem of course is that Somali children often can't negotiate social issues on their own. But as part of an official agreement, the district has promised to hire a Somali translator for every school and to cluster the children in fewer schools. They've also promised to find a Somali speaking liaison for families and to provide more extracurricular programs.
The Department of Education will monitor these promises until 2007. Meanwhile, Abdullah Ali Isac, the student Jean Caldwell tutors, will have to repeat second grade, something Caldwell dreads having to tell him.
For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.
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