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Immigrant children face challenges of new school, country, language

An educator with the Gwinnett County Public Schools, Nury Castillo Crawford was born in Peru but migrated to the United States as a child. In a new children's book, Crawford finds inspiration in her own journey from immigrant to American, a trek that led to an undergraduate and master's degree, marriage and three sons. Her book is called  “3,585 Miles to be an American Girl."

I asked Crawford to write about not only about her own experiences as a new child in a new school in a new country, but what immigrant children face today.

By Nury Castillo Crawford

Have you ever had to be the new kid in class? I would imagine the concept would not be one that’s completely strange to many of us. Well, imagine being new not only to a class, but to an entire country. A class where the teacher most likely only speaks a language you don’t know. So, you literally have to learn body language impromptu. Thank goodness, a smile is universal.

That’s what many of our students who sit in classrooms throughout our nation have to live through during their transition from their country of origin to the United States. My bilingual children’s book, “3,585 Miles to be an American Girl,” was inspired by my own journey in 1979 from Lima, Peru, to Columbus, Indiana.

I feel I was fortunate to have migrated here when I did. I recall those initial days in school where everyone looked different from people I had known. At the same time, everyone was kind and patient with me. The other students were intrigued about my skin color so they rubbed their little fingers up and down my arm. They stroked my shiny ebony hair. I believe they were in awe because they had fine blonde strands on top of their heads.

They drew tepees on crumbled lined paper, trying to figure out if I live in one; yet I was unable to decipher what their inquiry was at the time since I wasn’t aware of dwellings used by the plain’s Native Americans. As I reflect and reminisce, I can only chuckle and suspect that those two braids my mom made me every morning really did make me look like Pocahontas.

I recall my math teacher the most during that first year in an American school. She carried around an aged, shabby, tattered English-Spanish dictionary. I wonder if she had kept it from her college days. Every time she gave instructions, she would glance at me and quickly look up the translated meaning.  She had the patience of an angel. She never let me feel dumb nor did she ever shun me away for taking longer to process what she said.

The only other immigrant or Hispanic girl I knew in the whole school was my younger sister.  It was just us two at the little elementary school in that quaint town of Columbus, Indiana.

Fast forward to current times where 10 percent of Georgia’s population is born in another country and 1 in 13 Georgians is a native-born U.S. citizen with at least one immigrant parent. The Hispanic and Latino population in Georgia has grown.

As a state, we have experienced one of the fastest rates of growth in immigration in the United States over the past two decades. This without question has profoundly altered the makeup of our state's educational institutions. That’s where politics kick in and, since most students have fairly easy access to information via the internet or TV, the immigration debate now underway causes feelings of insecurity and many times feeling of inadequacy because they see and hear the open discourse. The constant outpour of debate, whether pro or con, affects not only our Hispanic and Latino students but also the rest of our student population.

As a life-long educator, I am confident schools remain focused on teaching and keeping all children safe. All the schools I have been a part of are aware of the political turmoil around immigration and make efforts to address concerns with individual students when necessary. Qualified students’ needs are met through counseling, ELL classes, and differentiation through academic support.

Children of illegal immigrants have a fundamental right to a public education embedded within our nation’s policy through the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe. To continue supporting all of Georgia’s children, I am hopeful we will strive to see what we have in common, appreciate our differences and learn from one another.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.