Tuesday, March 5th, 2013
In its spring issue, Education Next hosted a forum about how schools can best educate Hispanic students. Responding to the question, CEO of Chicago’s United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) Juan Rangel answers that schools catering to Hispanic populations should emphasize civic responsibility and good citizenship. “A quality public school that emphasizes civic responsibility and good citizenship,” he writes, “will suffice to transition immigrants successfully, challenging them and the rest of us on our joint commitment to the welfare of our nation.”
Key to this model is understanding the role that public schools play, not only in educating our youth, but also in serving as the mediating institution to successfully transition immigrant families into the American way of life, into making American values, culture, norms, and language their own. All American public schools ought to serve such a purpose, as they once did. Public schools can serve as powerful anchors to local communities, instituting a cycle of achievement and self-development at the grassroots level and instructing immigrants on the expectations placed on them as participants in American society.
Some will argue for a highly specialized program, curriculum, and staffing to educate Hispanic immigrant children. I beg to differ. There is no better cure for the social ills of our community and no better process for the education of an immigrant class than providing a great teacher, a core curriculum, a disciplined school culture, and strong accountability. These are sorely missing in America’s public schools, hurting all children, especially immigrant students.
Hispanic immigrant children need better public schools built around a curriculum that emphasizes American civics and citizenship. If a civics program is important for our nation’s future leaders across the board and to our democracy, it is more so for an immigrant community that is in a state of transition and whose youth struggle with issues of identity and belonging.
Our nation needs to recommit to the idea of building “one-nation … indivisible,” and the public school system should be central to this strategy. Unfortunately, there is no national will to welcome and integrate immigrant families into the American mainstream. Our willingness to wave the white flag on the words “assimilation” and “Americanization” not only weakens our ability to build on the indomitable spirit of immigrants, but also gives a pass to a gang and high school–dropout subculture among our youth that frightens both immigrant families and middle-class Americans, who worry about the welfare and future of their nation. The gang violence that plagues many of our communities and its schools is not inherent to Hispanics; it is a downward spiral version of American assimilation taking hold.
I recognize that any intentional “Americanization” effort is perceived in some quarters as denying people the right to maintain their heritage. Let’s be clear: these concepts of “Americanization” and “assimilation” do not demand the sacrifice of immigrant culture, history, language, and tradition. Our society and its schools ought to celebrate the rich history of our communities and aim to build on immigrant experiences to produce the latest example of an American success story.
Related: Read David Feith’s case study of UNO Charter Schools, “Making Americans: UNO Charter Schools and Civic Education.”