Schools deal with diversity

Educators hear about obstacles faced by immigrants


Staff Writer

WEST LONG BRANCH — Educators learned new skills for interacting with an increasingly diverse population of students and parents at a conference held last week at Monmouth University.

Cultural competency, immigrant issues and language sensitivity were discussed during a forum on “Overcoming Obstacles Faced by Foreign-born Families Dealing with Public Schools.”

The forum for educators was sponsored by the Monmouth County Human Relations Commission (MCHRC).

“Everyone here is in the same boat,” said Larry Traub, MCHRC chairman. “Monmouth County is the fastest-growing county in the state, and our diversity is growing by leaps and bounds. No one was taught how to deal with the problems going through here.”

MaryKay Jou, a training director at the International Institute of New Jersey, Jersey City, spoke about variables affecting immigrants from all cultures.

“When you think of the 20th century,” she said, “you think of war after war after war, and whenever there is a war, people flee.”

The institute is a refugee resettlement agency that provides refugees and immigrants with support when they first relocate to the United States.

Jou said an issue to consider when dealing with immigrants from all cultures is their level of acculturation, or how well a person is able to become accustomed to the American culture.

Acculturation is a factor of the length of time outside of the country of origin; reason for, and conditions under which, emigration took place; the level of social and family support; and the degree of religious affiliation.

“People do acculturate,” she said, “but it takes time.”

Family involvement is also a factor, according to Jou, who said research shows that extended family members are included and involved in times of crisis. There is also no privacy within family, and many immigrants will have difficulty speaking to someone outside their family about their problems.

“Have you ever scheduled a meeting with, say, the mother,” Jou asked the audience of public school educators and administrators, “and she shows up with 10 people? The family is very involved.”

Another point that Jou emphasized is that people filter everything through their cultural experiences, and what may be perfectly acceptable in American culture could be perceived as an insult when seen through the eyes of a foreign-born person.

She explained that co-dependency is seen as a negative in America, but that is

not so in other cultures.

“If you’re not codependent,” she said, “it’s as if you’re abandoning your family.”

Jou also distributed a fact sheet about the cultural and ethnic makeup of Monmouth County.

According to research by the institute, the population of Monmouth County is 623,000, with 10.4 percent of the population foreign-born, and 4.8 percent of those are noncitizens.

Seven percent of the county’s population is of Hispanic origin, while people of Asian origin make up 4 percent of the population.

Thirteen percent of families in Monmouth County speak a language other than English at home.

As of 2000, there were five mosques in Monmouth County, with approximately 9,455 members. There are also three Hindu congregations, two Buddhist congregations, and one Baha’i congregation in the county.

The top six nationalities of immigrants to Monmouth County are Puerto Rican, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Cuban and Filipino.

Francesca Maresca, a health education professor at Rutgers University, spoke on the importance of cultural competency.

“Experiences of foreign-born people,” she said, “are something that most of us cannot comprehend.”

Maresca asked the Caucasians in the audience when they first realized that they were white.

“It’s like asking a fish what water feels like,” she said. “Everything in my life has been affected by the fact that I’m white.”

Cultural competency is not the same as cultural sensitivity, she said, and asked members of the audience to write down a name they were called in their lives that they did not like, a brief description of the neighborhood in which they grew up, the first time they became aware of prejudice, and a time when they spoke out or responded in some positive way against prejudice.

“This is a lifetime learning process,” said Maresca. ‘We have all been born with scripts in our head. Sometimes we hear the script and we say it. Sometimes we hear the script and know we can’t say it. And sometimes we decide that we need to work on a new script.”

Joan Lenard, a teacher at Monmouth Regional High School and Ocean Community College, began her talk by showing the English-speaking audience what some of their students go through every day.

She began her talk by speaking in Spanish.

“This is what your students face,” she said. “This is what English-speaking teachers do every day.”

Lenard said that 151 languages are spoken in New Jersey.

“The immigrant experience is the same no matter where or when,” she said. “The only difference is how the different groups enter the country.”

Lenard said that some immigrants come to this country with a high level of education and a high level of skills in their native tongue. Others have skills in their own language and a working knowledge of English, but there are some who have never even mastered their own language, due to interrupted schooling.

Lenard said that although there is a large Mexican population in the county, many Mexican immigrants don’t speak Spanish, but one of the indigenous languages of that country. She said this is also true for many other cultures.

She said it can take five to six years of ESL classes before a student is able to compete with the general population of the school.

Lenard also said that many ESL students will go through a silent period, when they will not respond verbally because they are being receptive, taking in the language.

“It can be one day,” she said, “or one year.”

Monmouth County Superintendent of Schools Eugenia Lawson made the closing remarks, sharing her own experiences with prejudice.

“There’s something that you don’t know by looking at me,” she said. “I’m not African American. I am Cuban. Most of the prejudice I encountered when my family first moved here was from other black students because they never saw a black person speaking Spanish before.”

Lawson explained that the event was part of a series, and that she hopes teachers and administrators will continue to show interest in the issues that affect Monmouth County schools.

“I hope we’ll leave here today a little more spirited, more empowered,” she said. “Remember daily: you lead by example.”