Chinese Immigrants Lead Call for College Access

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OAKLAND, Calif. -- English-language learners have the lowest scores on the California High School Exit Exam and the lowest rates of college attendance in the state. Zhuanyi Deng hopes to change all that.

New America Media Education Editor Carolyn Ji Jong reports.

New America Media, News Report, by Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen, Posted: May 28, 2009

OAKLAND, Calif. -- English-language learners have the lowest scores on the California High School Exit Exam and the lowest rates of college attendance in the state. Zhuanyi Deng hopes to change all that.

Deng is part of a group of Cantonese-speaking low-income students who went to high school largely unaware that they had to take a certain set of courses to be eligible to attend the University of California or California State University. They are determined not to let other students meet the same fate.
Zhuanyi Deng and MuTing Cen, members of Asian Immigrant
Women Advocates youth group, work on their speeches.
She is on her way to a lunchtime meeting with the heads of the English Language Learner program at Oakland Technical High School. Deng and fellow youth group member Jessica Chen are presenting a guide they have developed with other Chinese immigrant youth in Oakland to help English-language learners in the district navigate the A-G series of courses necessary for California high school students to be eligible to enter a public four-year college.

As they walk toward the classroom where the meeting will be held, they speak softly in Cantonese and giggle nervously about their upcoming presentation. Deng, who is in the English Language Development (ELD) program, turns to Chen, who is the regular English stream, and says sheepishly, I only remember the part, Thank you for meeting with us. I cant remember the rest! But when they stand in the front of the teachers and give their presentations, Dengs nervousness seems to disappear. Even though her pronunciation of many words is fuzzy, her hands dont shake and her voice is strong.

Zhuan Yi Deng, 19, arrived from southern China two years ago with her family. Her mother, who works 60 hours a week washing dishes and cooking at a restaurant in Oaklands Chinatown, says she came to the United States to give her children a better education. She only received seven years of schooling in their village in China, and dreams that her children will have the opportunity to go to an American college.

Deng is currently in a mid-level ELD class that does not count toward the A-G courses. She has accepted that, like her older sisters, she will not be able to go directly go to a four-year college, no matter how hard she studies. She plans to go to community college, and then hopes to transfer, to study business.

When I came to the U.S. in 2007, the teachers didnt know our level -- we were just put into a basic class, she says. If I knew about the A-G requirements then, I would have pushed harder to go into a higher class to begin with. Then maybe things would be different, she says.

Two years ago, her youth group, part of the organization Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, identified graduating high school and having the opportunity to attend college as the biggest challenge they faced.

They decided to organize to make English learner students aware of the A-G courses required to be eligible for college.

The requirements include two years of a foreign language, certain higher-level math courses, two science courses, two history/social science courses, one arts class, and one elective. Finally, it demands four years of English -- and only one of those can be the highest-level ELD class.

Students who study and had some English before they came here go quickly through the different classes, says Vicki Silkiss, chair of the ESL department at Oakland Tech, but not everyone can.

The guide tells students that even if they enter as sophomores with little or no English, with hard work and dedication, they can still be eligible to go to a four-year college if they attend summer school annually, take big course loads, and are strategic about which courses to take.

My question is about the timeline and how realistic it is, says Silkiss.

James Coplan, another English Language Development teacher, tells Deng and Chen that teachers regularly inform their ELD students about the A-G requirements. Im not as convinced as you are that students dont know what they are supposed to do, he says.

The Asian Immigrant Women Advocates youth group surveyed 63 percent of the English language learners at Oakland Technical High School. They found that 62 percent wanted to attend a four-year college after graduation, but 50 percent did not know or were unsure about what the A-G requirements were.

According to the Educational Opportunity Audit conducted by the non-profit research group Education Trust West last year, only 5 percent of ELD students in the Oakland Unified School District in the class of 2008 were on track to complete the A-G requirements. Even special education students were ahead of the English language learner students, with 6 percent of them on the way to complete the A-G requirements.

Traditionally, when you look at the data, and you look at the white, black, Latina and Asian subgroups, it looks like Asians are doing really well, says Sheilagh Polk, outreach manager with the Education Trust West. But its not possible to look at more specific data within [each subgroup], like the year they immigrated, their income, whether they are an English language learner, she says. When you take this information into consideration, you realize that Asian English language learners are struggling. And nearly 50 percent of the Asian students in the Oakland School District are English language learners.

The youth group is joining a movement to implement A-G as the default curriculum in San Francisco and Oakland. This movement was successful in Los Angeles, where the constituents pushing to implement A-G district-wide were predominately black and Latino, says Polk.

Asian immigrant students may be easily marginalized because of the model minority myth, says Ling Chi Wang, professor emeritus in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. There is the general attitude that if you are Chinese or Asian, institutions and teachers expectations are that they can take care of themselves, even if they are English language learners. But this is not the case.

The recent wave of Chinese immigrants to the United States has come largely from mainland China. These migrants can be divided into two groups -- the more affluent international students who come to study, usually paying out of their own pocket; and working class immigrants whose entry is often based on relations with people already here.

Most of these migrants dont know any English at all, says Wang, and the most important challenge they face is acquiring the English language.

Some ELD teachers, who see firsthand the challenges their students face, are skeptical about the push for students to take required courses. Studies have shown that it takes six to eight years to get to the point where you can write well in another language. So Im not sure what the point is in moving people along more quickly if it takes them that long to be fluent in writing," says Coplan.

"Getting through the A-G requirements seems like a secondary goal to me. The primary goal is to learn English, he says.

Coplan adds that going to community college may actually be a better option for many of his students. A lot of [my students] are in families with a low income, so community college for them is not a bad option, because it keeps the amount that they are going to owe to a minimum.

But the young people are optimistic and determined. Making presentations to their English Language Development departments was only the beginning. They just returned from a trip to Sacramento, and recently spoke to the Oakland School Board about their guidebook, and their desire to make English language learner issues a priority. I think people are starting to listen to us, says Deng with a smile. I think that through our campaign, we can help more English learners go to college and be successful.

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