New school. New town. New country.
Immigrant parents and suburban schools: not always an easy fit.
Sun Park remembers vividly the day her daughter came home from kindergarten in tears. A classmate in her suburban Detroit school had called her Chinese. The comment, which was probably made in ignorance, still felt like an insult. Asian-Americans don't appreciate being lumped into a single ethnic group. Ms. Park was frustrated but not surprised. As the community's lone Korean family in the mid-1980s, the Parks were accustomed to such slights.
Five years later, the family was living in Ann Arbor, Mich., and her daughter was bullied in a middle school gym class. Another student cut in and took a ball from her, saying "You go home," implying that the Korean girl did not belong in the US.
But by this time, Park knew her rights.
"I went to see the principal and said, 'What's going on here?' He called a meeting with the other girl and her mother. He said the most wonderful thing: 'Where do you think we all come from? We're all from somewhere else.' "
As the number of immigrant families living in the suburbs increases, school officials will need all the cultural sensitivity they can muster. Foreign-born parents need help negotiating the daunting world of American education. While some suburban districts are reaching out to these newcomers, others are slow to find ways to make these parents feel welcome.
The latest suburban immigrants are those with college degrees and money. Some arrived on H-1B (special skills) visas from India, Pakistan, China, South Korea, and Latin America. But poorer families are also finding their way to suburbs and satellite cities near big metropolitan areas, in search of better jobs, affordable housing, and safer schools. Even midsize cities have been affected: Lewiston, Maine, has been in the news because of strife between longtime residents and a 1,000-strong Somali refugee community.
The 2000 Census shows that suburbs around major cities have seen a rapid increase in their im- migrant populations: 48 percent of immigrants who arrived in metropolitan areas in the 1990s chose to live outside the central cities. Nonwhites accounted for the biggest suburban population gains, and Asians were the most likely group to choose suburbs. The numbers of immigrants with young children are expected to rise even further, studies show.
For immigrants, language skills are key. Parents who haven't learned English can feel shamed and marginalized, even by their own children.
Ricardo Gonzalez emigrated from Ecuador in 1974. He entered ninth grade after a crash course in English. Because his mother was working three jobs, she was too busy to talk about school.
"I kept quite a bit [of information] from my mom," he says. If he was having trouble with a teacher, or couldn't decide what course to take, he didn't ask her. "I didn't want to worry her, and she wouldn't have understood."
Parents who don't know English rely on their children for such things as translating school notices and explaining why a certain grade was given, leaving room for omissions and confusion.
"It reverses the parent-child power structure," says Eileen Kugler, a consultant to schools on diversity issues who lives in Springfield, Va. "How can you set limits if you don't speak the language?"
Limited English skills can make parents vulnerable to discrimination, even by other immigrants. "You always assumed the ones who didn't speak English weren't as smart," Mr. Gonzalez says.
On the other side, immigrants with English fluency and advanced degrees can become impatient with American schools, which they see as not being rigorous enough academically.
Nargis Jahan arrived in the United States from India in 1994, and she and her husband, who works for a pharmaceutical company, live in Wadsworth, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.
Their sons attend the public elementary school. She says her family maintains cultural ties with other Indian families in the community, but that she feels welcome in her sons' school and among her mostly Christian neighbors. Her only criticism involves academics: "Every day, my sons don't have much homework."
These high achievers expect their children to do as well as they did or better, which for some means Ivy League colleges and doctoral degrees.
They are more likely to petition their child's high school for more advanced-placement courses than to lobby for programs to promote diversity.
Such parents, according to Anping Shen, a Chinese-American who works for the Massachusetts Department of Education, gravitate toward suburbs that can afford good schools - which usually means where whites live.
But for all immigrants, cultural differences loom large. Indian parents, for example, who grew up with single-sex education are not as comfortable with the mixing of boys and girls. Asian parents may be less inclined to question a teacher or administrator, not wanting to interfere. Many families are concerned about drug and alcohol abuse, and about sexual promiscuity - which they believe runs rampant in American schools.
"Parents only know what they've seen on TV shows like 'Boston Public,' " says S. Mitra Kalita, a second-generation Indian-American who has written "Suburban Sahibs: Three Immigrant Families and Their Passage from India to America." This is why more conservative immigrant parents keep their children on shorter leashes, she says.
Parents can also be tripped up by social situations that involve their child's school friends. Birthday and Halloween celebrations top the list.
Ms. Kalita's parents went to some lengths to adapt to the tastes of their daughter's Long Island, N.Y., friends.
"Even though my family doesn't eat meat for religious reasons, each year for my birthday, they had a cookout and grilled hot dogs and hamburgers," she says.
Other cultural subtleties may go right over the heads of well-meaning immigrant parents. For example, a Chinese mom in the Boston area sent her kindergarten son to a birthday party with the gift wrapped in Christmas paper. At the time, she just didn't know the difference.
Ilryong Moon, who came from Korea decades ago as a teenager, says the American custom of trick-or-treating must have baffled his parents, because he was the one who escorted his younger sister from house to house.
This lack of confidence is what Mr. Shen, who gives workshops for Chinese parents, wants to change.
Shen was galvanized into action after his son became the target of racial taunts and harassment in a Newton, Mass., school. Instead of leaving the district, Shen's family decided to stay and work with the teachers and guidance counselors.
Through this experience, Shen came to realize that other parents could benefit from his knowledge. Today, he holds a doctorate in education and helps Chinese parents understand differences in the American education system and urges them to be vigilant in advocating for their kids, "which is new for them," he says.
Immigrant parents can't always depend on their offspring to stand up for themselves as well as Mr. Gonzalez's daughter, Natalie, does.
Ms. Gonzalez says she regularly speaks out when Hispanic stereotypes are thrown in her direction. Although she attends Penn State, she still has to deal with people "who think all Hispanic women clean houses," she says.
Her father says most Americans don't distinguish between well-educated Hispanics and those with less education who work in blue-collar jobs. "They don't understand that the level of drive [in kids] is directly related to the level of their parents' education."
Ms. Kugler says suburban districts are reaching out to immigrant parents. More of them will need to, because the federal No Child Left Behind law requires schools to engage parents more fully.
Across the country, moves are under way to make this happen. The National PTA is in the second year of a pilot program in California, Texas, and Florida to mentor Hispanic parents. Carla Niño, president of the California state PTA, says they've received calls to duplicate the program for Asian parents.
In Texas, a nonprofit organization called AVANCE brings Hispanic mothers of preschoolers into the local grade schools for a dual-literacy program. The goal is to make the mothers feel welcome while offering them an opportunity to improve their own English skills.
Suburban districts must "think holistically about the needs of families," says Nicole Fedoravicius of the Center for Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. "They need a philosophy that education isn't just what happens in the classroom."