Immigrant Families’ Language Barrier Hinders Education

It is Sunday morning and the breakfast table is set at Wendy Campos’s house. She has prepared a typical American breakfast, with pancakes, sliced strawberries and bananas, maple syrup, cereal and orange juice. The aroma of coffee wafts through her kitchen. There is an underlying spiced scent layered between its flavors.

“In El Salvador, we like to add cinnamon to our coffee,” says Ms. Campos, 33, who moved to New Orleans in April 2013 with her son, Samuel Alessandro Valle Campos, 11. She came to join her husband, Leopoldo Valle, 34, who arrived here in 2009.

Joining the Campos family at the table are Ms. Campos’s sister, her brother-in-law and her 5-year-old niece, Maria Daniela Campos. They all live together in the same house in New Orleans East. “Sunday is our family day,” Ms. Campos says, as she smiles with pride.

“Who’s going to say the prayer today?” her brother-in-law asks.

“Yo,” replies Maria Daniela, meaning “Me,” in Spanish.

“Are you going to do it in English or Spanish?” asks her father as he opens his Bible.

“English!” she yells,” drawing a boisterous collective laugh from her family.

Ms. Campos’s family is part of a growing influx of Hispanic immigrants who arrived in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They came seeking a better life in the United States and were attracted by job opportunities in construction as rebuilding began.

“Everything looked so beautiful when I arrived here,” said Ms. Campos, who was unsatisfied with her home country of El Salvador, where she worried about gangs, drugs and gun violence. “I thought our son would have a better future here.”

Ms. Campos’s family did indeed find a better life in New Orleans. Her husband works as an independent electrician and is able to provide for her and their son.

She also feels safer. “Here, I don’t have to be concerned about drug cartels being formed right next to my house,” she said. But like many other immigrants in the metropolitan New Orleans area, Ms. Campos and her husband have struggled with their lack of proficiency in English. And they believe their son, Samuel, is paying the price.

“Before I brought my son here, I heard that they’d help with kids at school, that they would provide English as Second Language (ESL) classes for children,” Mr. Valle said. “But time passed and they didn’t do anything.”


Everyday Barriers

Samuel is in fourth grade and has just completed his first semester at Medard H. Nelson Charter School. It is one of more than 80 independently operated institutions that compose the New Orleans Recovery School District, created after Hurricane Katrina.

With the rapid growth of the Hispanic population (census figures show that about 33,000 Hispanics have moved in since the 2005 storm), the number of students with limited English skills has nearly tripled in New Orleans schools, advocates say. This relatively new phenomenon has challenged many schools as they seek the right formula to educate children who speak little or no English. Students like Samuel are getting lost in the school system, and their parents have been unable to get involved in their children’s education.

“The first report card showed his grades had decreased by a lot,” said Mr. Valle, who was informed by the teachers at the beginning of the semester that his son needed ESL classes. “It was a lengthy wait until the school began providing it, so he just attended his classes and they assumed he was understanding everything, but he actually wasn’t.” It wasn’t until the last two weeks of the semester that he began ESL classes, he said.

And when Samuel didn’t understand his classes, he couldn’t count on his parents’ support; his homework was in English only. “I felt bad,” Mr. Valle said. “Sometimes, I said to Samuel, ‘Do your homework,’ but he would tell me, ‘Dad, I can’t do it.’ The truth is, I couldn’t help him either, my English is very limited.” In those situations, Mr. Valle sought help on the Internet.

For Jenny Yanez, a community organizer, this is a typical problem faced by many immigrant parents in New Orleans – a problem that will most likely hurt their children’s academic performance in the future. “If a student’s understanding in writing, reading and listening in English isn’t on a certain level, he or she will not perform in history classes that are required for graduation,” said Ms. Yanez, who works for the nonprofit Latino organization Puentes New Orleans. “So we are seeing higher dropout rates. There is actually a correlation between students being frustrated and the dropping-out rate. They want to learn, but they are not improving.”

Although Samuel didn’t drop out of school, his parents realized he was no longer motivated to attend his classes just a few weeks after the semester began.

“He started suffering at school,” Ms. Campos said, as she wiped her tears. “Kids were hitting him because of his accent, or misunderstanding. Bully.” The language barrier has prevented her from speaking up about the issue. “I felt sad because I felt my hands were tied,” she said. “I wanted to express my feelings but could not say anything.”

Ms. Campos and her husband claim that the school’s administration was not very helpful in resolving her son’s problem. But the school’s administration says otherwise.

“We are aware of the complaint of this family and have intervened,” said Sametta Brown, the chief executive officer of the New Beginnings Schools Foundation, the institution that oversees Medard H. Nelson Charter School and three other charter schools.

“Bullying is a national problem and we are aware and have intervened on that,” she said. “We are working with our students who were born in New Orleans to help them understand the language barrier.”

“We don’t have a large staff, but we are recruiting more,” Ms. Brown said. “We do have an ESL program so the few students can take this class.” The main challenge for the group of schools Ms. Brown oversees is that Hispanics still represent a very small portion of her student population, she said, which makes it harder to invest in special language programs for them.

“Our population was mainly Vietnamese, so we are adapting to that change,” she said. For her institution, she said, the best solution was hiring a person who rotates among the four schools providing ESL classes for non-native students and translation services for their families, as needed.


Insufficient Response

But for grass-roots organizations such as VAYLA New Orleans, offering ESL classes is not good enough if the teachers don’t take the time to follow each student’s progress. “Kids are getting ESL, but parents are not aware of the quality of the course,” said Cristiane Wijngaarde, education organizer for VAYLA, which began as a support organization for Vietnamese immigrants.

Ms. Wijngaarde said she constantly hears complaints from parents whose children have been enrolled in the same level of ESL classes for as long as three years without making progress.

“These violations have been going on for over 30 years in our Vietnamese community,” Ms. Wijngaarde said. “We can’t wait another 30 years. We are united with the Vietnamese in this fight.”

Last year, VAYLA joined the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund to file a federal complaint on behalf of Vietnamese and Spanish-speaking parents whose children were enrolled in several charter schools and traditional public schools in New Orleans. The complaint accused the Orleans Parish School District and the Recovery School District, both of which oversee these schools, of not providing adequate translation services for parents and their children.

Though the Recovery School District’s representatives chose not to comment on VAYLA’s complaint, they agreed that there is room for improvement in the programs offered for ESL students and their parents. “It’s going to take a number of years for us to get there,” said Dana Peterson, the deputy superintendent of external affairs. “Different organizations make us aware of different gaps that may or may not exist in our school system, so I work closely with them to ensure we are doing the best we can in serving our students.”

Although Samuel’s school was not part of that federal complaint, the New Beginnings Schools Foundation is adopting new services with the goal of satisfying the needs of Hispanic students. The network is launching a radio campaign in Spanish aimed at explaining the school registration process and to welcome future students.

“As these students and their families come, we are going to make our best effort to communicate and translate what we need to translate,” said Patricia Ventura, the executive director of student support for the New Beginning Schools Foundation. “Our staff is taking language courses to be able to effectively communicate with families and direct parents on how to seek help.”

At the breakfast table at the Campos home, little Maria leads the morning prayer. This is part of her family’s tradition. “Thank you God for the food,” she says in English, pausing after each sentence to allow time for her family to repeat her words. In unison, the family follows her prayer. Samuel laughs each time his cousin stumbles on the English words. “We are good for Jesus if we are good people. We are Jesus’s power. We are good people. Amen.”