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When Chicago schools meet immigrant families halfway, kids learn

Kids from immigrant families in Chicago who start kindergarten not knowing much English do just fine in the long run. Many don’t just catch up to the other kids — they do better.

CPS students at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the South Side.
A University of Chicago study found that by the time “English learners” were in the eighth grade, nearly 80 percent were proficient in English.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

This is good news, if you can call it news.

Kids from immigrant families in Chicago who start kindergarten not knowing much English do just fine in the long run. Many don’t just catch up to the other kids — they do better.

That’s the key finding of a long-term study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research.

It’s an important study because it challenges the notion that immigrant families are a drag on America, which is at the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment, but it should come as no surprise. The study’s findings are consistent with a wealth of evidence that immigrants to the United States are, by and large, more law-abiding than the rest of us, successful in business and successful academically.

Those are broad generalities. There are caveats and exceptions. But the best research gives the lie to the fear-mongering of white nationalists and their sympathizers, including White House advisor Stephen Miller, that America had better slam shut the door to further immigration, especially by poor people of color.

The University of Chicago study followed the progress of 18,000 Chicago Public Schools students who were not proficient in English when they started kindergarten. By the time these “English learners” were in the eighth grade, nearly 80 percent were proficient in English. The majority — 76% — had become proficient by the fifth grade.

Better yet, as Mitch Dudek of the Sun-Times reported on Wednesday, English learners who demonstrated English proficiency by eighth grade had higher attendance, math test scores and grades in core courses than their peers who were never classified as English learners. Reading test scores and rates of freshmen on track to graduate were similar.

These findings fly in the face of previous studies that showed big gaps in school performance between kids who were proficient in English and kids who were not. But, as the authors of the University of Chicago study note, those earlier studies were more like snapshots, examining differences in academic performance at frozen points in time.

The Chicago study, by tracking thousands of students through eight or nine years of schooling, reveals how that academic gap narrows and even disappears over the years.

The authors of the study give significant credit to a culture of acceptance of non-native English students in Chicago’s public schools. The educational philosophy of CPS and the State of Illinois is to meet these kids at least halfway, which is not necessarily the philosophy elsewhere.

“As opposed to other states, like California where they are (or were until very recently) using English only classrooms, Illinois uses the approach of using students’ native language as a way to build up their learning in English when possible,” Marisa de la Torre, managing director at the Consortium, told us. “I think research has shown that one of the predictors of how successful students are in becoming English proficient is how proficient they are in their native language.”

The consortium looked at kids who were not proficient in English when they started kindergarten, whether or not they were born in this country. But its findings fit well with an earlier study, by Johns Hopkins University, of kids who came to the United States at a later age, including pre-teens.

In that 2012 study, immigrant children did better on average than their peers in school. And when those immigrant kids grew up, their own children also did better than their peers.

And it wasn’t just Asian American kids who beat the average, which would be the stereotype. Johns Hopkins found that the pattern held for all immigrant children, including those whose families arrived from Mexico desperately poor.

Johns Hopkins credited high cultural and family expectations for the kids’ success, along with the advantages of being bilingual — eventually — and having seen a little more of the world.

Family and cultural expectations definitely have played a role, as well, in Chicago’s schools, as revealed in the higher average attendance rates for the English learner students tracked in the University of Chicago study.

“English learner students are more likely to attend school than their peers,” Torres told us. “That’s despite EL students being more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are more likely to receive a free or reduced-price lunch. Poverty tends to affect attendance to school because of less reliable transportation and access to health insurance. These families are making sure their children are in school.”

Chicago has always been a city of immigrants. We are reminded, once again, that this is one of our great strengths.

And we are reminded, once again, that public education is about more than books and tests.

It’s about schools and teachers understanding where their students are coming from — their strengths and weaknesses and needs — and meeting every kid more than half way.

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