Community schools support immigrant students, strengthen democracy

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Carlos Azcoitia

Carlos Azcoitia

Immigration and community-focused schools reflect and strengthen the core values of democracy in America. Both are just and wise investments.

Our country was founded on the principles of freedom and economic and educational opportunities. All immigrant groups have contributed to these ideals.  Yet, history sadly repeats itself as new immigrants face resistance. The draconian measures advanced in Arizona and legislative initiatives in other states are the antithesis of what our country is all about.

Due to economic pressures, immigration remains in the public eye.  Dominant populations have always demonstrated a high level of anxiety while immigrants are arriving, yet everyone recognized their important contributions to America.  Immigrant-bashing continues to prevail nowadays, regardless of the myriad contributions to our system of free enterprise by documented and undocumented residents. In the past, immigrant groups from Europe, Ireland and the Mediterranean were suspect on issues of public safety, religious and economic grounds.

However, as immigrant groups acculturate to the American way of life, the pessimism subsides—until new issues emerge and immigrants become scapegoats for a variety of social and economic ills.  Latino, Asian, European and Caribbean immigration in its great majority is grounded on the value of hard work, family and faith commitments and the adaptation to America by learning English and most of all paying taxes.

The story of our community school exemplifies the attributes of all immigrant groups who aspire to the American dream in search of educational and economic opportunities.

It is estimated that immigrant youth will make up a third of young Americans in 2040.  We need to focus on their educational and economic success for the well-being of our country. Therefore, the Dream Act, as it has been proposed in Congress, needs to be addressed. Although unsuccessful in the past, it will provide equitable educational opportunities for successful students who have served their country well.

Community schools are a successful approach for addressing the needs of immigrant families.  The driving force is a simple premise: Education does not occur in isolation from the rest of a student’s life.  Other factors – family, community, non-profit organizations, businesses, and university partners – play an extremely important role in a child’s successful education.

Schools cannot escape their interdependence with outside factors that influence whether students learn. Community schools seize opportunities to connect students and families to resources and support.  By expanding their boundaries, community schools will become stronger and will engage parents and the community.  They have the power to become the focus of the community, connected to daily lives and experiences, and thus can share the educational responsibility with other responsible partners.

Our pre-k through secondary community school in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, which serves immigrant families with documented and undocumented children, has flourished. Spry Community School has excellent attendance, above-average achievement growth and is aiming for a 100 percent graduation rate and enrollment in post-secondary education. Spry is a school that is open six days a week, with a year-round schedule and longer school day, and where families learn together to improve the quality of life in their communities, city, and country.  At Spry, immigrant students excel academically, socially and emotionally.

Our students are advocates for issues they regard as vital, and become involved in planning what they will be doing. Whenever they are involved with applying ideals such as fairness, equity and justice to their world, their engagement is more powerful. Therefore, service learning opportunities enrich the curriculum and provide leadership development as students address community needs. All high school students serve as tutors in the primary grades. They participate in workshops to enhance their skills as reading buddies and increase their knowledge of the teaching of reading. This experience also conveys the message that they are role models in their own community. Internships in agencies surrounding the school expand their experience as they serve other members of the community. Their involvement in other community activities has included advocacy for a neighborhood public library and for a playlot for preschool children, and participation in peace marches in the community. Students also realize that their engagement makes a difference, and they are connected to others through mutual work on common goals.

Our community school provides a variety of extended learning opportunities for immigrant families. Family and community engagement are fostered through high school equivalency classes, English as a Second Language instruction and literacy groups. A partnership with a health agency allows the school to offer health fairs, conferences and services to families. This collaboration culminated with the opening of a school-based clinic with Alivio Medical Center. Parents working as literacy leaders teach other parents and community residents. Home gatherings emphasize financial education, neighborhood improvement, immigration rights and community safety.

So once again, we need to revisit history with role models like Jane Addams, whose incessant quest to support families at Hull House in Chicago set the pathway for our responsibility to serve immigrant families. Another model is John Dewey, who envisioned and implemented programs so schools could become social centers to develop well-rounded citizens. A third model is Leonard Covello, an Italian immigrant and principal of Benjamin Franklin High School (a community school in East Harlem, New York City), whose primary responsibility was to assist students and their immigrant families to adapt to American society.

These champions of our democracy invigorated and energized our community values by including immigrant families in their quest for self-help and self-determination in order to contribute to the well-being of others.

Every immigrant journey has represented the hopes of our democracy, where prosperity, freedom and educational opportunities are advanced. Immigrants have arrived, both documented and undocumented, and willing to serve our economy in difficult jobs. Our country needs the political courage to face the reality of documented and undocumented immigrant youth and families, so they can regularize their status and continue their journey of self- improvement and broaden their contributions to our country.

Carlos M. Azcoitia is an assistant professor of educational leadership at National- Louis University in Chicago. He is the founding principal of John Spry/Community Links High School in Chicago and a member of the Steering Committee of the Coalition for Community Schools.