Recent immigrants face 'silent period' in school

Teachers have a name for the first six to eight weeks that recent
immigrants spend in school in the United States: the silent period.

The stony quiet of the kids, who often lack English-language skills and
may be reeling from culture shock, can frustrate teachers who don’t
understand what they’re going through, says Rosalia Cruz, who heads the
bilingual education department at Travis High School.

“They (teachers) will say, ‘He’s just sitting there and I don’t know
what he’s thinking,’ ” she says. The students, she says, “are just kind of
taking everything in.”

The Austin Independent School District serves 6,341 students it has
designated as limited-English proficient, according to AISD’s office of
research and evaluation. Most are Spanish-speaking elementary school
students from low-income families.

Travis, one of several high schools that now offer bilingual programs,
was the first when its program began in 1985, Cruz says.

“The kids were succeeding in junior high (bilingual programs), but once
they moved on to high school there wasn’t anything there for them, and they
would drop out,” she says.

Cruz says two Travis graduates who went through the school’s bilingual
program will graduate this spring from Notre Dame University, where they
were awarded full scholarships.

Other graduates go on to technical schools or community colleges.

Students in the Travis bilingual programs attend special classes and
are assigned a Spanish-speaking adviser who offers scholastic advice,
tracks absences and attempts to establish contact with the students’
family. The students typically enter mainstream classes as juniors, but
advisers continue to monitor their progress, Cruz says.

Though they often are very motivated, the students enrolled in
bilingual programs face special obstacles, Cruz says.The students often
have left a parent or other family members behind and many are living in a
“culture of poverty” that often keeps them from applying for U.S. residency
or citizenship, Cruz says.

And too many, Cruz says, have seen their futures cut short because they
lack residency or citizenship credentials required for many college
scholarships or grants.
“When seniors get to graduate, because they’re here illegally or don’t
have a social security number, some don’t qualify for scholarships,” she

“A lot of seniors just don’t have a place to go or they just settle for
any kind of menial job like painting or cleaning an office. I think we’re
wasting a lot of talent.”

Barbara Hines, an Austin immigration lawyer who until this past month
was co-director of the Texas affiliate of the Lawyers Committee for Civil
Rights, Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, says the project frequently
receives calls from school counselors around the state. The counselors want
to know what they can do when top students are denied scholarships or
affordable tuition rates at many state schools because they have failed to
establish residency. Some private schools are less restrictive, Hines says.

“But most of the time, those kids can’t get in anyplace. Basically
they’re just stuck,” Hines says. “It’s a real tragedy.”

The project’s primary goal is to address immigrants’ access to higher
education, Hines says. In Texas, that access varies from school to school,
and from one scholarship or grant to the next, Hines says.
For help

For help in establishing residency or citizenship, call the
Austin-Travis County Refugee Services, at 467-9816, 5555 North Lamar, Suite
K100. Clients are screened over the phone and seen by appointment only.
Refugee Services also makes referrals to lawyers with expertise in
immigration law.

For more information about The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights,
Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, call (210) 736-1503.

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